People watching

Reading time: 1 minute


A man in a cap takes off one brown leather shoe and pulls the white sock end from between his toes. His wife sits down for a rest on a nearby bench and watches him sympathetically.

A Hispanic woman tilts her head sideways as if trying to dislodge some water, then swings her right arm in three arcing turns. Her friend smiles.

A disabled man rests on a step. He is smartly dressed except for the oversized trainers on his feet.

A tourist films traffic on the street.

My toes curl inside my shoes. Perhaps a reaction to the day’s heat.

A flock of beautiful schoolchildren glides by, each of them wearing big sunglasses. Yellow T-shirts labelled ‘STAFF’ in bold black are all that distinguish the adults from the rest.

Two old men visit the sights of London. It’s unclear whether they’re friends or a couple. Are their wives dead, or just resting at the hotel bar?

Excited tourists have photos taken beside a red phone box. The graffiti tells another story.

Some people just look like tourists, like the man in the Panama hat. Would he wear that at home, I wonder.

A short, balding man with a beautiful woman. He looks rich.

A man in a high-vis jacket eyes me suspiciously.

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Boiler trouble

boiler-trouble

Reading time: 16 minutes


The day Martin discovered his boiler had broken was the day his girlfriend of six years dumped him by text. It was the day he got off a triple ‘emergency’ shift at the factory. It was the day he reached forty hours without sleep. It was the last day of the year.

Martin got home, numb from exhaustion and the shock of rejection, to find that his flat had absorbed the cold of the previous two days, days which had been clear and bitter with a sharp north wind. He checked the thermostat and timer. Both seemed to be working fine, but what did he know?

What do I know? Martin thought. He didn’t know. I don’t even know what I know. I don’t know why Kate dumped me. I don’t know why we had that argument. Or why every single other person at work seemed to be off sick at the same time. I don’t know why my flat is so cold. I don’t know how to fix it. I don’t know if I could feel any more tired. I don’t know if I can sleep.

Without rebooting overnight, Martin’s mind had started to coalesce the memories from the last two days into odd tableaus: Pete, his manager at the toy factory, action figure-posed and boxed-up on the conveyor belt, still screaming abusive encouragement through the plastic window; Kate, his girlfriend — ex-girlfriend — reclining naked on the stack of unconstructed cardboard boxes behind his workstation; Pete and Kate, reclining on the conveyor belt — poseable arms and legs entwined — both shouting abuse, both naked.

They’ll catch a cold like that, thought Martin, before realising that was ridiculous. Plastic toys can’t catch colds. They don’t have nostrils. Where would the snot come from?

He went to the kitchen and looked at the boiler, at the rusty edges, the scratched paint, the exposed pipes. It hung over the sink, one loose nail away from plummeting into the greasy water which Martin assumed was near to icing over.

Does the grease make the freezing point higher or lower? What about the teabag and that yellow scum around the bowl, how do they affect surface tension?

The only light still showing on the boiler was small, blinking and sickly yellow. It was the kind of light that made the machine look like it couldn’t do anything else, that the feeble light was all it had left. It was a twitching leg of a light.

Martin turned on the tap and reached for the kettle, but he couldn’t get the spout into the stream of water because the stream had frozen. He tapped the icicle a few times with the kettle. Tried the hot tap. The boiler light blinked at him like a condescending teacher waiting for the penny to drop. Hot water would require a working… boiler! That’s right! He broke the icicle off with his hand and stuck the kettle under the tap.

Kate and Martin were under a blanket in the living room. It was summer then, and daytime, but they’d each taken the day off work for Martin’s thirtieth and never bothered to get dressed. The day had been spent on the sofa, watching films, drinking tea, and enjoying each other’s bodies.

‘Your turn,’ said Kate, nudging him in the ribs with an elbow. The metal hinges in her action-figure arms were still covered by soft flesh then.

Martin snorted in laughter, ‘You what?! I did it last time?’

‘That was for water, this is tea. Totally different! And I got the last cup.’

Martin laughed again, playfully pushing back, ‘Nope, that was me as well.’

‘It was defo me.’

‘No, it wasn’t, remember you told me my bum was boney? Which it is. That was then.’

‘For fuck’s sake, Martin,’ Kate said, ‘just get me a cup of tea, ok?’

They didn’t talk while the kettle boiled. Martin felt naked. Not the naked he’d felt with Kate on the sofa, but the naked of childhood nightmares and broken locks on changing room doors. Naked and cold and locked out of his flat, Kate on the inside just watching him out the window while he froze to death. Naked and falling, icy wind all around him, jolting to a stop and awake a frustrating six inches from the surface of the cold stone earth.

He wished now that he’d put on more layers before trying to work out the heating problem. In his bedroom, he added another pair of socks and another jumper. He found a pair of tracksuit bottoms he hadn’t worn since a brief jogging phase a few years ago — Kate had talked him out of it before he was able to get too carried away with his new fitness plan — and put these on over his jeans. He went to the hook by the front door, finding it a little hard to walk in all the layers, and put on his coat, woolly hat, and scarf.

He thought about having something to eat. He thought about preparing a meal, eating at the tiny table by the single-glazed patio door, chewing blocks of ice. He thought of washing dishes in ice water, how his breath was already crystallising in front of his face, how it felt like it was going to snow. He decided to go to bed.

Under the duvet in all his layers, Martin dug around in his coat pockets for his gloves. Then he buried this face under the covers and breathed body-warm air into his cave.

The moisture from his lungs began to freeze on the underside of the duvet. The cotton turned to ice. Stalactites formed where his breath froze en route to the roof of the cave. They grew with every exhalation, reaching for his mouth and forcing frigid air back down his throat. The cold began to consume his chest and head and his limbs burned with it. His back ached from tensing over the conveyor belt during his shifts, from tensing against the cold. His jaw ached too, and that spread to his ears until they started to throb.

Wom wom wom wom wom

On the book on the floor by his bed, his phone vibrated.

Wrr wrr wrr

A text from Kate, telling him that she would be going out that night and would not be wishing him a happy new year. Then Kate was in his bedroom, facing the wall opposite him and doing her makeup in a mirror that he didn’t own. She was straddling him, naked and sweating in the cold. Her hair had turned from brown to blonde. The duvet and all his clothes got in the way, but she didn’t seem to mind. Martin tried to get her to stop so he could remove his layers, but she just kept bouncing up and down on his crotch like a toy with an ‘On’ switch. Martin was relieved Pete wasn’t there this time.

When Kate went, the cold returned, so he slumped out of bed, jogged on the spot for a few seconds, got out of breath, then went to see if the rest of the flat was warmer, taking his duvet with him.

Lying on the sofa, he pulled the back cushions down on top of him.

Wom wom wom

The ear throbs continued. He pushed back the cushions and sat up, huddled under the duvet in his layers of clothing, flicking through TV channels, settling on MTV, with music videos of rappers and dancers on beaches and in sweaty clubs. He danced, volume up full, pounding around his little living room holding his duvet around his shoulders like a vampire’s cape.

Wom wom wom wom

Wom wom wom wom

Wom wom wom wom

Wom wom wom wom

The bass trembled through their feet as Kate and Martin walked into the club. Forty-odd minutes of queuing in the New Year’s Eve chill. Martin kept his coat on when they finally got in, but Kate stripped hers off, down to the skimpy dress she had squeezed herself into, and handed it to Martin to take to the coat check. When he got back ten minutes later, she was nowhere to be seen. He spent the next two hours wondering the dance floor looking for her, still freezing under his coat, or sweating, he wasn’t sure now. He found her leaning over a table of guys and breathing steamy breath on their faces. She blamed him for taking so long, then skipped off into the throng of dancing bodies.

A dozen or so twenty-somethings danced around Martin’s living room carrying half-drunk bottles and half-smoked cigarettes. He noticed a couple snogging on the sofa. A woman grabbed him and demanded to know where the toilet was so she could puke. Martin looked around the room for a familiar face, but his eyes couldn’t focus in the movement and he gave up caring, moving closer to the hot bodies around him and bouncing with them, stripping off layers until he was down to his T-shirt and jeans. The drink in his hand heated his chest and went straight to his head. When the woman came back to the room, wiping her mouth on one of his discarded jumpers, he grabbed her and pulled her into the dance. She gulped, almost audible over the music, then moved close to him and started grinding against his crotch. Her hands went under his T-shirt, then took it off over his head, wrapped it around his neck and pulled him down and licked his lips, kissed him hard with her tongue searching. Vomit, he thought, warm.

Vom vom vom vom warm warm warm

The dancing raged on, a bottle smashed in the kitchen, people screamed and laughed. Then vomit girl was talking into her phone and moving away from Martin. She shouted something across the room and the music stopped.

‘You what?’ she said into the phone, then to the room in general, ‘Oi, what number is this flat?’

26A, thought Martin.

‘26A,’ said the woman to the phone, ‘Shit, yeah we’re in the wrong one, be there in a minute,’ then back to the room, ‘This is the wrong one, party’s in 28A. Luke you dick, we told you this weren’t it.’

And then they were gone, leaving behind them the broken bottle, the muted TV, and the stench of refluxed boozed. Sofa couple were the last to leave, getting dressed on the way out, eyeing Martin suspiciously as he watched them go.

Wrr wrr

Another text from Kate, telling him where she was and who she was with (someone called Joe who she said was ‘stacked’). Telling him why he wasn’t there with her, why he’d never be with her again. He stared at the phone for a long time, trying to make sense of the words. Did she just break up with me? Hasn’t this happened already?

The small square of light in his hands was an ice cube, hotter than his body, melting his skin. His fingers were decimated, down to the bone, then that burnt away and the ice cube dropped to the floor and ate through the carpet and the floorboards — smoke and the smell of singed hair — through the cold concrete beneath the flat and into the frozen earth.

Womp womp womp womp

The wind was howling through the open door, banging it to the silenced beat of the TV’s current music video. Martin was lying on the sofa, his naked torso raw with cold, his crotch and legs chilled by drying sweat and, he hoped, spilt booze.

He jumped up fast, shut the door, then got the mattress from his bed and dragged it against the windows in his living room.

Wom wom wom wom

I need to get warm.

Warm warm

Layers back on — T-shirts, jumpers and tracksuit bottoms from the living room floor, more jumpers from the bedroom, more trousers and socks and shoes, a long coat on top.

Wrr wrr

His phone was back in his pocket, on the innermost layer. He dug it out, seeing another text from Kate. A selfie with a man who looked like a superhero action figure. Plastic muscles under his stripey tight T-shirt. This must be Stacked Joe.

He turned the oven on, then the music volume back up.

Maybe if I dance some more…

A minute later he opened the oven door. Breath-warm air spilt out of the open mouth and he stood by it, waiting for his legs to heat up, felt the damp in his jeans.

I should change my trousers.

In his bedroom, he found a pair of cleanish jeans, took off the top few layers of trousers and the damp jeans, put on the new pair and the others back on over the top.

Whmp whmp

From the front door, he heard a secretive knock.

How does a knock sound secretive?

Opening the door a crack, he saw a late middle-aged man wearing a camouflage jacket and combat trousers with a multitude of bulging pockets. He had a sort of waistcoat on, camouflage green, with even more pockets, and a green bag slung over his shoulder that also looked heavy.

‘Have they gone?’ the man whispered through the crack, ‘are we clear?’

Martin looked around at the room, ‘Um, yes,’ he said, ‘we’re clear.’

‘Let me in then, will you? It’s freezing out here.’ Martin opened the door and let the man in. ‘Holy shit balls,’ he said, stepping into the entrance hall, ‘it’s freezing in here too. You conserving energy, are you? That explains all these clothes you’re wearing. I thought you were a fatty at first.

‘Anyway, smart thinking that, I live off the grid as much as possible. No sense relying on the sinking ship. Whole thing’s going to collapse any day and then it’ll be anarchy, every man, woman and child for himself and we’ll be the ones with all the power.’

‘Boiler’s broken,’ said Martin.

‘Oh, I can fix that. Where is it?’

Martin pointed through the living room and followed the man in.

‘Hang on there lad,’ the man said when he saw the oven door’s open yawn. ‘Step away from the ledge, alright. I know the situation’s bad, son, but the human race needs resourceful, brave men like me and you. We’ll be the ones required to repopulate. We must survive for the good of the species.

‘Now, I too have considered the easy way out, I must admit, in my darkest hours, but prepping for the oncoming apocalypse is not an easy task. The responsibility lays heavy on our shoulders, trust me, I know, but we are the future, son, we must be strong.’

Martin closed the oven door and started to say something. Then other words tried to come out, then more and more.

He gave up on all of them and said, ‘There’s the boiler.’

‘Righto,’ said the man. He dug into one of his waistcoat pouches and pulled out a screwdriver, set to work unscrewing the front of the boiler. Once inside, he dug some pliers out of his trouser pockets and got to work on some wire.

Who is this man?

‘Not going to tell you my name. Names won’t mean a damn in the new world, but you can call me…’ he looked up at the ceiling for inspiration. ‘…the Survivor. One way or the other, we’ll either have numbers, colour-coding allocations, or be known by our positions in the reproductive hierarchy.

‘Anyway, I’m just checking in. Saw your barricades there against the windows, thought I might lend a hand with your fortifications.’

Barricades?

‘The mattress there. I would have chosen something a bit more sturdy myself, a few planks of two-by-four, some sheet metal if I could get it, but beggars can’t be choosy can they, especially in these times of austerity and political upheaval?’ He took a spanner from another pouch and began tapping on pipes. ‘Here’s the one,’ he said, then unbolted the pipe and wrenched it away from the boiler. ‘All done. You should start to feel better in no time.’

‘Brilliant!’ said Martin, ‘Is the heat back on?’ He couldn’t hear the familiar humming and ticking. The twitching leg of a light had stopped twitching.

‘Nooooo,’ said the Survivor, ‘far from it, but I got this bastard out of there. This is how they keep you soporific and docile so you don’t start to worry about the whole world going to shit, so you don’t question everything you see and hear, like whether your neighbours are who they say they are, or why the hell an animal as big as a cow would give up all it’s milk to a dirty man in wellies so he can sell it for pennies to multi-billion-pound supermarket megachains.’

‘That pipe?’

‘Jesus, lad, keep up if you want to survive. It pumps out a drug. Your boiler stopped working, that’s why the effects are wearing off you now. That’s why you’ve started to think, started to protect yourself. It’s a good job I was walking past tonight and popped in to educate you, isn’t it? No thanks required though, son, just keep stocking up on supplies, stay healthy, and don’t trust the fuckers.’

The Survivor pocketed his tools and clasped Martin’s arms near the shoulders. He looked into his eyes for a long time, then spun on his heel, military-fashion, and stomped out of the flat like a wind-up soldier, slamming the front door behind him.

Whomp

Martin was uneasy, dislodged, unhinged. He wandered around his flat, room by room, listening to the quiet of the streets.

Wrr wrr

He ignored the vibration from his phone. Peering out the windows he saw apocalyptic scenery, collapsed buildings around him, distant bombs flashing across the sky, a one-eyed teddy bear hanging by its fur on a barbed-wire fence. And the cold was always there, inside him and beyond, infinite and pervasive.

Wom wom wom

Martin heard distant explosions. What the hell was that?

He smelled cordite. The houses opposite were whole again, but there were flashes of light behind them and people screaming in the night. Jesus. The Survivor was right, it’s happening, this is the end. I need to get prepared, block up the flat properly. Wood, I need wood for the windows.

Whomp whomp whomp

A heavy knock on the door. Oh Christ, oh Jesus, what’s that now? Are they coming for me? Were they watching that man, do they think I’m a threat?

Kate stood behind the half-opened door, looking as she’d looked in the photo she sent, minus Stacked Joe and with her makeup spread across her face, her plastered smile wobbly.

‘Made it!’ she wailed, ‘five minutes t’spare!’

‘Shit, Kate, there’s something happening out there, it’s not safe. Come in quick.’

‘Yeah, obviously I’m going to. You seen the fireworks?’ She pushed past Martin then dragged him towards the sofa, walking backwards and talking all the way, ‘…but then I realised he was really just a loser, like, yeah, he was a lawyer, and yeah, he was fit, but he just didn’t have any of that, you know, whatever you’ve got. Why is it so effing cold in here, and why are you wearing all these clothes? You look stacked!

‘Anyway, I want you back, Martin. I came here to start the new year with you and carry on where we left off, because I don’t know if I can be with other people.’

Whmp whmp

Another secretive knock.

‘Wait,’ said Martin, ‘Let me just…’ he trailed off and went to the door. The Survivor was there, looking nervous.

‘Let me in,’ he whispered urgently, ‘it’s started, it’s shitting started.’

Martin opened the door and ushered him inside. ‘Is this it? I thought it was, then Kate came and I think I was imagining it.’

‘Number one, don’t be so naive boy, of course this is it, I told you it was coming didn’t I? Number two, thank the holy mother I was still near your flat when it all kicked off, but we need to get this place barricaded asap. Lucky I found these planks unattended in the building site down the road. And number three, who or what is Kate? If she’s human and of breeding age we need to keep her safe. She just might be the mother of the future of the human race.’

‘The mother of fucking what?!’ screamed Kate, flinging herself from the sofa and into the space in front of the Survivor’s face. ‘Who are you, you skanky old man, and who says I even want children?’ Rounding on Martin, she said, ‘and what have you been telling this twat? Is he your mate? What’s he even doing here? Why are you both putting those boards over the windows? You’re going to lose your deposit putting those nails in the wall.’

Martin’s eyes blurred, but he said, ‘I don’t really know how to tell you Kate, but I think the world is ending.’

The Survivor paused in hammering a plank into the wall. Martin noticed the metal pins in his poseable hammer-action arm as it stopped in mid-air. ‘More like society is beginning to tear itself apart. It’s part of the natural order, so you shouldn’t look so shocked, but we need to prepare for the long haul now. I only wish we’d been at my bunker. Got all the supplies we’d need there, not to mention my weapons. Maybe in a month or two we can make a run for it. Just got to survive the first few weeks. Turn that light off, will you love?’

Before Kate could respond, Martin’s front door burst open and dozens of people flooded into the flat.

Why didn’t we barricade the door first?

‘It’s a raiding party!’ shouted the Survivor, brandishing a plank of two-by-four.

‘Party!’ shouted one of the new-comers, brandishing a bottle.

‘Molotov cocktail!’ shouted the Survivor. He flew at the twenty-something who was holding the bottle, yelling at Martin to ‘protect the All-Mother!’ then clubbed the boy around the head. At the same time, vomit girl appeared at Martin’s side and pulled him down into a passionate kiss which he didn’t resist. ‘Happy New Year!’ she shouted.

Kate’s eyes flared, then she forced herself between the two and attacked vomit girl with her ruby red lacquered extensions.

Martin staggered back, felt the nudge of the sofa behind his knees, then let himself collapse onto the cushions. Music came on again from the TV, loud and obstructive, neutral to Martin’s ears, like white noise.

Wom wom wom wom wom wom wom wom

He watched Kate and vomit girl, not hearing the curses and blows they landed on each other. He thought about the texts he’d had from Kate that night and all the nights before. The fights they’d had and the words and fists she’d used on him. The times in between which rarely felt much better.

Did she break up with me? Maybe I’ll break up with her.

Wom wom wom wom wom wom wom wom

With each throb in his head, he saw the heat from young bodies filling up the flat, more intense around the areas of activity: where Kate and vomit girl scrapped and scraped at each other; where the Survivor nailed a slightly dented two-by-four across Martin’s front door, occasionally swinging his hammer behind him to fend off verbal attacks from young people; where more twenty-somethings were crouched beside the boy who sat dazed on the floor, one of them on the phone, explaining what had happened to the police who would eventually arrive, sirens cutting through the night.

Martin saw the collective heat of all this and felt warm.

Warm warm warm

And he slept.

Warm

The Devil is in the detail

devil-shoes

Reading time: 30 seconds

I sold my sole to the Devil, as was the contract he presented to me.

In return, I was given wealth beyond my wildest dreams, a beautiful and loving family, and a long and happy life. I dedicated my time and money to helping others, becoming loved and respected as a philanthropist and ensuring my place in Heaven.

But throughout my life, the sole of one of my shoes belonged to the Devil, so I was always lopsided and often had a cold and wet foot.

The Devil, I believe, was also lopsided and now hires a proofreader to check all his contracts.

> INITIATE PRIMARY FUNCTION

c77c53aa-6e09-46d1-8bb6-a9d2c0026ed1Reading time: 30 minutes


The explorer trembled when she heard the dinosaur coming. There was no doubt that she was going to be found. And when she was found, there’d be no saving her. Losing control of her voice, the explorer let out a shriek. She was clearly terrified.

‘Oh no!’ she cried, ‘who will save me?’ She waved her arms above her head, as if this could protect her from the dinosaur’s clamping jaws, crushing feet, and massive, swooshy tail.

The explorer buried her head between her knees. Something moved the chair she was hiding behind, exposing her to the dinosaur. The Harrysaurus Rex pounced. The clamping jaws clamped over the explorer’s head, the crushing feet crushed her stomach until she couldn’t help but laugh (even with her head in the clamping jaws), and the swooshy tail went swooshing straight into the lamp on the side table.

‘Kathy?’ called a voice from the kitchen. ‘What was that?’

‘Nothing, dear,’ replied the explorer, picking up the lamp and winking at the Harrysaurus Rex, ‘just playing a game.’

‘Can you play something that involves less smashing of furniture please?’

‘Sorry Daddy,’ said Harrysaurus Rex. The dinosaur stood upright, relaxed his arms, which he’d had tucked up into tiny T-Rex claws, wiped the snarl off his face, and became a human boy again.

‘That’s alright,’ said the voice from the kitchen, ‘just be careful please. Why don’t you pretend to be helper robots and do some tidying up before dinner?’

The explorer, now Harry’s mum again, said, ‘Alright, love, we’ll be good,’ she smirked at Harry, then said, ‘Ok, Haz, let’s be robots. Let’s see who can be the best robot. If you win, I’ll make sure Daddy lets us play Harrysaurus again tomorrow.’

‘How will you do that?’ asked Harry.

‘I’ve got my ways,’ she said.

‘Like what?‘

‘Well, like giving him a biiiig kiss!’

‘Bleugh!’ said Harry. ‘What happens if you win?’

‘If I win… you can tickle me silly until my head pops off from laughing too much! Deal?’

‘Affirmative,’ Harry replied, his voice metallic, as if it was a recording being played somewhere inside a large metal box, which is what Harry now imagined his head was.

‘Ooh, game on!’ said his mum, ‘I better find some duct tape and start taping my head to my neck.’

Harry didn’t laugh. He was being a robot. The best robot he could be.

‘HazBot 2000,’ said his mum, using the same metallic voice, ‘I am MumBot 3000. I have a higher number because I am from the future and I am cooler than you. Let us do what robots do and tidy up for our human overlord. I will put these books away.’

‘I will put these toys away.’ replied HazBot 2000.

They began carrying out their robot tasks, moving with jerky robotic movements, occasionally whirring or beeping. Harry’s mum lost her composure a few times and her balance more than once. HazBot 2000, on the other hand, was a robot through and through. He never laughed, but he whirred when his limbs moved and beeped as he thought about which toy went where.

‘Dinner’s ready,’ called Harry’s dad from the kitchen.

‘Almost done,’ said his mum, then, ‘Oh sh-ugar… Ha! That didn’t sound very robot-like did it HazBot? You win!’ She went into the kitchen. ‘Sorry Chris, it’s dinosaurs again tomorrow.’

‘Oh, is it now?’ said Harry’s dad. ‘Pretty sure you said something about a “biiiig kiss” to get me to agree to that. And right now, I don’t feel like kissing, soz!’

‘Be quiet and come here…’

HazBot 2000 watched and waited for the exchange of affection to end, then whirred and clanked into the kitchen.

‘Game’s over, Haz,’ said his mum, sitting in her seat at the kitchen table, ‘Robots don’t eat spag bol.’

HazBot 2000 clambered onto his chair and picked up his knife and fork, holding them upright with his arms bent at 90 degrees. ‘Spaghetti bolognese is not ideal, but it will do,’ he said, ‘I can make energy from food to recharge my battery unit.’

‘Just what every chef wants to hear,’ said his dad.

HazBot 2000 used his fork to flatten the food in his bowl. Then he patted it down so the sauce and spaghetti compacted into a dense cake and sliced it into neat squares, each one half an inch wide.

The parents exchanged a look they assumed Harry didn’t see.

‘School tomorrow, Haz,’ said his mum, ‘have you finished your homework from Friday?’

‘Negative,’ said Harry, ‘HazBot 2000’s homework was to make a log cabin with a door and windows using lolly sticks. HazBot 2000 used the lolly sticks to make a ramp for his cars. Then I threw the lolly sticks at some pigeons.’

Harry’s mum snorted into her wine glass and got a glare from her husband. ‘Well,’ she said, ‘at least you’re being honest about it. I think we’ve got a few more lolly sticks. Shall we see if we can make a cabin out of them after dinner?’

‘Affirmative,’ replied her robot son.

‘You know you won the game, don’t you?’ said Harry’s dad, ‘Mummy said you were the best robot, so you can stop now.’

‘Can not compute,’ said Harry, ‘HazBot 2000 does not understand “game”.’

‘You are so good at this,’ tried his mum, ‘definitely the best robot I’ve ever seen, but maybe you should go back to being Harry the boy for a bit.’

‘Can not compute,’ he repeated. ‘HazBot 2000 does not know “Harry the boy”.’

‘Fine’, sighed his mum, ‘But do you have to talk about yourself in the third person?’

‘Can not compute. HazBot 2000 does not know “third person”.

Harry’s dad said, ‘Third person is what we use when we talk about someone else. So if I say, “Mummy should know better than to egg you on like she did”, that’s in the third person. But if you use it when you talk about yourself, it’s like you’re really talking about someone else.’

Harry seemed to have stopped listening, but kept eating square after square of spaghetti cake.

After the meal, Harry’s parents let him do the washing up, wipe the kitchen surfaces, and sweep the kitchen floor. His next task was to do his homework. It took him about half an hour to build the log cabin, although he forgot to include the door and windows.

Before bed, he brushed his teeth, taking precisely three minutes and making sure to spend an equal amount of time on each tooth. He lay awake and unmoved as his mum read him a funny story in bed. Then, as she switched off the light and left the door ajar, HazBot 2000 said, ‘Shutting down to upgrade systems’.

‘Well, that was an interesting evening,’ said Kathy as she came back into the living room. She shut the door behind her so Harry couldn’t hear them from his bedroom down the corridor. Apart from the living room and Harry’s bedroom, the flat had three rooms: Chris and Kathy’s bedroom, a small bathroom, and the kitchen. All the rooms were shabby in some way — worn carpets in the living room, cracked tiles in the bathroom — because the landlord refused to improve anything without increasing the rent. At one end of the corridor was a sash window looking onto next door’s plain brick wall. They were on the top floor of a detached Victorian house in a once-leafy London suburb. It was the type of building that might have been perfect for a typical middle-class family when it was built. Now it was divided into five flats which the average family could only rent if both parents worked full time. Kathy worked full time. Chris didn’t, but his publisher paid decent advances and he bought all his clothes from charity shops to make up the difference.

‘Yeah, well,’ replied Chris, when the door was closed. Kathy looked at him for a moment. He was reading a novel, or pretending to.

‘“Yeah, well” what?’ she said.

‘Nothing, sorry, I didn’t mean anything, just that it was interesting, like you said.’

‘Really?’

‘Yeah.’ Kathy waited for Chris to speak again. ‘Ok, fine. I just think sometimes you might encourage him a bit too much.’

‘Aren’t I supposed to encourage him?’ Kathy said, picking up the bottle of red from the coffee table. ‘Isn’t that what we’re meant to do?’

‘You know what I mean. We need to keep him calm in the evenings so he doesn’t get too excited before bed.’

‘He’s six, Chris, I was playing with him.’ She paced around the room, reluctant to sit down.

‘I just think we need to set some clearer boundaries, to stop this sort of thing from happening.’

‘This sort of thing? How many times has this happened before exactly?’

‘Well, not this,’ said Chris, ‘but remember that week he kept saying “poo” instead of “food”, or the time he painted his whole face blue because you were playing Braveheart?’

‘It was half his face,’ mumbled Kathy.

‘We need to start making this easier for ourselves,’ Chris said. ‘I’ve got a month until my deadline. I need to be able to focus, not worry about how he’s pretending to be a robot. I’m freaking out about it, if I’m honest. About the deadline. I still don’t have an ending, apart from the one they said was confusing, and they’ve asked me to rewrite a whole backstory. I don’t have the headspace for this.’

‘And you think I do?’ Kathy said. Wine sloshed in her glass. ‘It’s not like I meant for this to happen, is it? Our funders are pushing for results, the press office are begging us for details, the university secretary is asking about our budget, which we have definitely blown wide open, and we’re still not even sure our bloody theory is actually bloody sound.’

‘Which is exactly why we need to calm things down for a while,’ said Chris, ‘I don’t want you to stop playing with him, but it needs to be calm.’

‘Well, I’m probably not going to be here in the evenings anyway because I might have to work late most nights, or every night. I doubt I’ll be home for his bedtime. You’re going to have to get him to bed, so at least he won’t get to use his imagination and it’ll be nice and calm and you can just bore him to sleep!’

‘Har har,’ said Chris, and picked up his book again.

‘Look,’ said Kathy, ‘he’ll forget about this robot thing by the morning. And if he doesn’t, he can keep doing the housework to take the pressure off us.’

> POWER ON … INITIATING BOOT DISK

> UPGRADING CPU … UPGRADE COMPLETE

> FORMATTING DRIVE A: … FORMATTING COMPLETE: HAZBOT 4000 AWAKE

> INITIATING OCULAR RECEPTORS … ESTABLISHING SURROUNDINGS

> INITIATING LIMBS … CONFIRM MOBILITY … MOBILITY CONFIRMED

> TEMPERATURE SENSORS FUNCTIONING … ATMOSPHERE: COLD …

> LOCATING DRESSING GOWN

> STEALTH MODE ACTIVATED … NAVIGATING STAIRS

> LOCATING KITCHEN …

‘This can’t be good,’ said Chris not long after the alarm went off.

‘Is he still asleep? He never sleeps later than us,’ Kathy said, whispering in case, just this once, he had.

‘Could be a new phase. Maybe he’s become a teenager overnight.’ Chris slumped out of bed and shuffled next door into Harry’s room. Kathy held her breath until her husband’s head reappeared in the doorway.

‘Not a new phase,’ he said, ‘we should get downstairs.’

Harry was dressed and ready for school when they got to the kitchen. He’d prepared breakfast for them both, mixing his mum’s bran flakes with raisins and warming porridge for his dad. He’d made coffee, poured orange juice, and put a banana on each of their side plates.

‘Good morning,’ the tinny voice said, ‘HazBot 4000 has prepared a healthy breakfast for you. Please begin eating.’

‘Morning Haz…Harry,’ said his mum, ‘That’s very kind of you. You’re a kind little boy, aren’t you?’

‘Negative,’ said Harry. I am not kind, I am simply performing one of my many secondary functions: to serve you a healthy breakfast. Also, I am not a boy,’ he paused, ‘but I am quite little.’

Harry’s dad knelt down in front of him. ‘Harry,’ he said, looking him in the eye, ‘you have to stop this now. You’re going to school today, and your teacher will be angry if you keep pretending like this. Do you understand? Mr Crickle isn’t going to like this very much is he?’ HazBot 4000 closed his eyes.

> SEARCHING MEMORY …

After a few seconds of whirring and beeping, he said, ‘Mr Crickle has shown an interest in robotics three times in the last month. Mr Crickle likes to read science fiction books written by Isaac Assmov.’

‘Asimov,’ said his dad, ‘but Harry, Mr Crickle won’t want you to pretend to be a robot like this. He’ll want you to be Harry.’

> SEARCHING MEMORY …

A few seconds later he said, ‘In the same time period, Mr Crickle has told Harry he is being “disruptive” sixteen times. HazBot 4000 is never “disruptive”, so Mr Crickle will prefer HazBot 4000 to Harry.’

‘Let’s let school deal with this then,’ said Harry’s mum, eating her cereal, ‘they’ll know what to do, they must have seen something like this before.’

‘I’ve never seen anything like this before,’ said Mr Crickle. He was talking to Mrs McNiven, the Headteacher, towards the end of the lunch break.

‘Have you tried asking him to stop?’ Mrs McNiven said. She was sitting behind her desk, watching her half-eaten egg salad sandwich as if it might get up and leave if she didn’t finish the job soon.

‘Of course, yes, but, well…he wouldn’t,’ replied Mr Crickle, ‘he just replied that it was one of his many functions and he was programmed to do it.’

‘To be a hand dryer?’

‘Exactly. So I tried quoting Asimov at him,’

‘Mr Crickle?’

‘Asimov’s laws of robotics. A robot must obey orders given to it by a human. He’s pretending to be a robot, you see.’

‘Yes, I gathered that much,’ said Mrs McNiven. Her egg salad sandwich was inching towards the door. ‘And where did that get you?’

‘Well, nowhere, obviously. He just said something like, “HazBot 4000 cannot override programming”. I suppose that’s a valid argument.’

‘No, Mr Crickle,’ said Mrs McNiven, standing up, ‘that is not a valid argument. That is not a valid argument for standing in the corner of the girls’ toilets and blowing on their hands when they try to leave. Now, I suggest you find a way to remove him from there before he decides he’s a bidet. I will call Harry’s parents and tell them what’s happened and what will happen if they do not resolve this little plea for attention soon. I’m sure they’ve handled something like this before.’

Mr Crickle left the office and closed the door. Before she called Harry’s parents, Mrs McNiven slowly and thoughtfully ate her egg salad sandwich.

‘She really thinks we’ve dealt with this before?’ Kathy said when Chris told her about the phone call. They were in the kitchen, tidying up after dinner. Harry was in the living room next door and seemed to be staring blankly at the wall.

‘That’s what she said. I think she was trying to be encouraging, but it sounded pretty threatening. It might be the accent.’

‘Has she got an accent?’

‘Kath, she’s definitely got an accent.’

‘Where from?’

‘She’s Scottish. She’s really really Scottish.’

‘Is she?’

‘Yes!’

‘Oh. Well, whatever. What else did she say?’

‘She said we need to sort it out, stop him being a robot before next Monday. Or…’

‘What?’ Harry’s mum asked.

‘She said they might have to suspend him.’

‘Suspend him? For pretending? At primary school? Isn’t that what primary school is all about?’

‘I think you’re thinking of drama school,’ said Harry’s dad.

‘I’m not thinking of drama school, I’m thinking of primary school. They just play games and dress up and play with dolls all day.’

‘That’s nursery Kath. Harry’s six, you know that right? He’s doing Key Stage 1.’

‘I don’t know what that means. I thought it was all still fun and games.’ Harry’s mum said.

‘Look, the point is, he needs to start acting normally, otherwise they’re going to send him home for the week. I can’t afford to take the time off to look after him, and neither can you, so we have to sort him out. Now.’ They went back into the living room.

‘S’up, Haz,’ said his mum, ‘what you up too?’

‘HazBot 4000 is storing your recent conversation for future processing,’ HazBot 4000 said.

‘Processing… oh god, ok. Harry, I just remembered I promised we’d play dinosaurs again tonight. Is that alright, Daddy?’ She looked at Chris, then said, ‘I’ll keep it calm.’

‘Well,’ said Harry’s dad, putting on a show. ‘Ok then, just don’t break anything please!’

Harry’s mum took up her position outside the living room door, put on the explorer’s hat and rucksack, then picked her way through the dense foliage and into the jungle clearing. Half way across the open space, she froze, unable to ignore the feeling that something was watching her. She glanced about without moving her head. Out of the corner of her left eye she could just about see the giant lizard, it’s massive hind legs and leathery belly, the disproportionate forearms, and, near the tops of the trees that lined the clearing, the powerful jaws and massive, razor sharp teeth.

‘Don’t move a muscle,’ she hissed to herself, ‘Harrysaurus Rex can’t see you if you don’t move.’ Suddenly, a prehistoric bee the size of a rugby ball landed on the end of the explorer’s nose. She flailed her arms around wildly, shrieking and whooping while she hopped up and down, spinning around, anything to dislodge the giant insect… then she remembered the Harrysaurus Rex, who was usually laughing hysterically by this point.

The mega bee flew away, and the explorer turned towards the beast standing still on the edge of the clearing. ‘Fascinating,’ said the explorer, ‘it’s toying with me. I’ve discovered a new behaviour unknown to modern man. It must be more intelligent than we think.’

‘Harrysaurus Rex is not toying with you,’ said the dinosaur, ‘Harrysaurus Rex is resting after its recent meal. Harrysaurus Rex recently ate fish fingers, chips and beans and needs to digest the meal before continuing to hunt. You pose no threat to Harrysaurus Rex. There is no need to chase you.’

The explorer took off her hat and rucksack, and Harry’s mum went into the kitchen to pour herself a glass of wine.

After school on Tuesday, Mr Crickle was waiting with HazBot 4000 at the school gates. When Chris arrived, Mr Crickle explained how Harry had offended one of the cleaning staff by pretending to be a translation bot, ‘translating’ what she said into English, even though she was speaking English already.

Next, he told Chris that Harry had declared himself the ‘auto-fart-amatic’ and turned Quiet Time into thirty minutes of screaming, giggling and gagging.

‘Then’, said Mr Crickle, ‘in the art lesson, he offered to carry the paint pots and had an “arm malfunction”. Chris looked down at Harry and saw that his face and hair were still mottled with various colours of paint.

‘I was actually quite encouraged by the fart machine,’ said Mr Crickle. ‘It was almost like the old Harry, but somehow he managed to make even that seem robotic.’

Wednesday afternoon brought a similar report from Mr Crickle. HazBot 4000 had been found by another teacher preparing to use his ‘self-cleaning toilet brush extension’.

‘There’s more,’ said Mr Crickle. ‘He’s become an influencer. Other children are following his lead. Not necessarily as robots, but we do have a few of those. We’ve also got an astronaut, an egg, a monster, a police officer, a spoon, and a parrot.’

‘At least the parrot should be easy to teach,’ said Chris. ‘Because, you know, it just repeats what you say.’

Mr Crickle ignored him. ‘I’ve kept this away from Mrs McNiven for now, but if it spreads to the other classes and she gets wind of it, it’s not going to help Harry’s case.’

That evening at home, after another conference (this time in their bedroom with the door closed), HazBot 4000’s parents explained to him that what he was doing would get him into trouble. He listened patiently while they told him that it was upsetting for them and for the other children at school. They tried to impress on him the severity of being suspended from school, of how it could affect him — follow him — for the rest of his life.

> LOCATING SELF … SEARCHING …

‘HazBot 4000 has no life,’ he responded, ‘HazBot 4000 is not alive.’

‘What are you trying to do?’ asked Harry’s dad.

> SEARCHING …

‘HazBot 4000 is merely carrying out its primary function: to be the best robot.’

‘Well that’s not enough, Harry,’ said his dad, ‘you need to try harder than that.’

> UPGRADING CPU … UPGRADE COMPLETE

> RECEIVING NEW SECONDARY FUNCTION … SECONDARY FUNCTION COMPUTED

> INITIATING RECORDING FUNCTION … RECORDING

> FILTERING DISTRACTIONS …

On Thursday morning, HazBot 6000 sat in the classroom while the other children jostled and shoved, hanging their bags on their hooks, shouting over each other. He observed the inefficiency of their movements and their speech, how they jumped and ran, jabbered, sang and repeated themselves: ‘Keira, Keira, Keira’; ‘no no, listen listen’.

He watched Mr Crickle, at the front of the classroom, trying to find something in the art cupboard, displacing paint pots and brushes, spilling a tub of glitter and swearing under his breath.

As the lesson started, HazBot 6000 tuned out the background noise and focused. He heard Mr Crickle say things he hadn’t heard before and understood for the first time how the five times table worked, how the numbers could only ever end in a five or a zero, nothing else.

A little later, he wrote a poem, concentrating on the rhythm of the lines, the meaning and shape of the words, not just whether or not they rhymed.

After lunch, he cleared the leftover plates, wiped down the tables and mopped the floor. Then, during Quiet Time, he found a dictionary and read to the end of the Bs.

At home in the evening, HazBot 6000 heard his dad saying that his publisher had cut his deadline by two weeks.

‘I’ve been writing like crazy, trying to meet my quotas, but it’s all rubbish, my mind’s all over the place, I can’t get my ideas in order.’

HazBot 6000 went into his dad’s bedroom and found the stack of printouts and notes he’d dumped on a chair.

> INITIATING REORDERING SEQUENCE … SEQUENCE READY

> COMMENCING REORDERING …

Later that night, he remembered the words ‘appurtenance’, ‘assoil’, ‘benefactor’, ‘bodge’, and ‘burble’.

Chris and Kathy had agreed they’d both collect Harry after school on Friday. Chris’ arrived first, but Mr Crickle, Mrs McNiven, and Harry were the last people waiting in the playground. Harry was sitting on a bench a few yards behind the grownups.

> INITIATING RECORDING FUNCTION … RECORDING

‘I’m so sorry I’m late,’ said Chris. ‘My publisher moved my deadline and my notes were all out of order — I don’t know what happened there — and I lost track of time, it’s all been a bit frantic… is Kathy not here yet?’

‘No,’ said Mrs McNiven, folding her arms, ‘as you can clearly see, she is not. However, we have been standing here for quite some time already, so I suggest we get on with it. As I’m sure you are aware, young Harry is still… acting up, shall we say? This has been rather a trying week for Mr Crickle, for the other children, and, I don’t doubt, for the two of you.’ Kathy arrived while Mrs McNiven was talking. She’d had a phone call at 4.55pm — the press office asking stupid questions about the press release they were writing for her research. ‘Thank you for joining us,’ Mrs McNiven went on, before Kathy could apologise. ‘However, I think we can agree that the person to suffer most as a result of Harry’s behaviour is likely to be Harry himself. The things he has done this week, the distractions he has created… he has never been the most focused of our pupils, but this week he has slipped even further. I severely worry for his future studies if this slide towards ignorance continues.’

Mr Crickle cleared his throat. ‘Actually, sorry to interrupt you, but the last couple of days he’s done really well.’

‘Has he?’ said Mrs McNiven, ‘Well, that’s a surprise twist.’

‘Sorry,’ said Mr Crickle again, ‘I should have told you.’

‘Indeed. We’ll discuss this later, but I suppose you’d better reveal all.’

Mr Crickle pulled a handful of notebooks from under his arm and shared them between Harry’s parents and Mrs McNiven.

‘Since yesterday,’ he said, ‘something seems to have clicked. His work has vastly improved. I mean, beyond anyone else in his year. Maths, english, geography — he’s suddenly getting it all.’ Harry’s parents looked at the notebooks in their hands.

‘He’s used metaphors,’ said Harry’s dad, ‘Correctly.’

‘And his handwriting is way better than last week,’ said his mum. ‘It’s joined up and everything!’

Mrs McNiven said, ‘How has this happened, Mr Crickle?’

‘I don’t know,’ said the teacher, ‘I really don’t, but he’s changed — his attention span, his whole approach to lessons. This sounds mad, but it’s like he’s reprogrammed himself, like he’s gone beyond pretending. I don’t think he’s playing at being a robot anymore. He’s not using it as an excuse to do silly things. It seems like, in his mind, he is a robot.’

‘Stop there please, Mr Crickle,’ Mrs McNiven said. ‘Your imagination seems to be getting the better of you too — one more thing to discuss later — but whether or not Harry thinks he is a robot or is pretending to be one, he must stop before Monday morning. The threat of suspension is now quite near, and very real.’

Harry’s parents protested immediately, waving the notebooks at Mrs McNiven, insisting that Harry’s improved work had to count for something.

‘If he goes on doing work like this,’ said Harry’s dad, ‘who knows where it could lead him. He’ll get over the robot thing eventually, but this could be his chance to get ahead. Look at the potential he’s got here!’

Mrs McNiven apologised, but said he’d have to find another way to apply himself to his studies.

‘What about the other children,’ said Harry’s mum, ‘the other ones who are pretending? Are you going to suspend them all?’

‘Mr Crickle?’ said Mrs McNiven. ‘Something else you haven’t told me?’ Mr Crickle was looking nervous. ‘Something else for our little chat. You’ve scored a hat trick!’ She turned back to Harry’s parents. ‘You’re not going to change my mind here. Just take the weekend and resolve this issue. Find someone who can help, get away somewhere, just do something, or he won’t be coming back into this school on Monday morning.

‘Camping?’ Kathy tilted her head, weighing up the suggestion. ‘Do you think it’ll work?’ They were standing face-to-face in the tiny kitchen while the washing machine went through its inhuman cycle of screeching and shaking. HazBot 6000 was in the living room, apparently doing his homework, which was to make up a mnemonic to remember all the planets in the solar system.

‘I have absolutely no idea,’ said Chris, ‘but it’s all I can come up with at the moment. He’s loved it in the past, and he’s always wanted us to take him somewhere that isn’t a campsite. We’ll go somewhere really wild and fun, somewhere adventurous, where we can show him how to light a fire. We’ll pick mushrooms, jump in a river, all that.’

‘We’ve got nothing to lose I suppose,’ said Harry’s mum, ‘let’s give it a go.’

On Saturday morning, Kathy and Chris packed the car and strapped Harry into his car seat. They drove for a few hours, leaving the red-brick suburbs behind for brown industry and the brown behind for green fields. HazBot 6000 didn’t ask where they were going or whether they were nearly there yet. He didn’t ask to go to the toilet or have a snack, but Harry’s parents made sure they stopped enough that he didn’t have to. They’d decided to try the path of least resistance – not to scold him or cajole him, but to let him see that nothing was wrong with admitting defeat, that they’d be there to have him back when he chose to return.

They parked the car by the side of a small road, then Harry’s dad put a bag on his back, and Harry’s mum put a bag on hers, and they followed the road on foot until the tarmac turned to loose stones. HazBot 6000 kept up with them all the way, swinging his arms and legs stiffly, whirring and clanking his gears and pistons along the road, then the stony track, then the muddy path that led through the trees and across the field, up the hill and over into the woody valley below.

‘This looks like a good spot,’ said Harry’s mum, ‘what’ya think Haz?’

‘Please qualify “good”,’ said HazBot 6000.

‘Good for camping, Haz, we’re staying the night here. You remember doing that last year? We went to that campsite by the sea didn’t we? And you made friends with that boy Sam. Remember?’

‘Affirmative, HazBot 6000 can confirm memory file is present.’

‘Good,’ continued Harry’s mum, ‘well, this is going to be even more fun than that I bet. We’re going to play in the woods, and make dens, and get really muddy if you like. There’s a river down there where we can go for a swim, then we’ll see if we can catch some fish for our dinner. Dad will pick some wild mushrooms if he can find some, and I’ll gut the fish and put it on a stick which we can hang over a big fire, which we’ll light right here in this clearing.’

Chris started to unpack the tent from his bag, feeling his way through the folds of the canvas, pulling out the edges and corners, laying out a two-dimensional plan of the tent on the ground. He positioned the hoops and holes, the ropes and loops, so that they were all aligned. Then, beside the canvas, he began to set out the flexible poles which would form the skeleton of the tent, arranging them in order, depending on their length and the colour-coded stickers he’d wrapped around each one at both ends. HazBot 6000 watched the whole process. His mum was unloading boxes from the car, but when she saw him watching, she said, ‘Right, Haz, let’s take our shoes off and go down to the river for a swim before lunch. Sound good?’

‘HazBot 6000 does not understand logic of removing its shoes.’

‘It feels nice,’ said his mum, ‘and it’s fun.’

‘HazBot 6000 does not feel. HazBot does not know “fun”.’

‘Just do it, you’ll see,’ she said, taking off her own shoes and socks. HazBot 6000 complied, like an obedient robot, then stood still on the ground, watching his mum curl her toes into the moss and pine needles. She shuffled deeper into the earth and let the soil work its way into her skin, a smile widening her face. Then she ran off through the woods, shouting for Harry to chase her. He followed with his usual stiff walk, his sweaty bare feet picking up the dry dirt.

Harry’s dad joined them when he’d finished putting up the tent. Together, they swam in the river and took turns to climb out and jump in. Harry’s parents flung themselves through the air in comical shapes — making huge splashes as they hit the surface — then burst out of the water laughing. HazBot 6000 took his turn to jump in when he was told to, but he kept his limbs to his body as he fell and never laughed when he broke back out of the water. When they had swum enough, his parents chased each other on the river bank, giggling like children, while HazBot 6000 watched unamused. After a while, they walked back up to the tent, where Harry’s dad lit the stove and cooked them a tin of baked beans, which they ate with buttery rolls and cans of Coke.

‘We should go for a walk after lunch,’ Harry’s mum suggested as she mopped up bean juice with the last of her roll. ‘There’s a path up the hill that way that’s got amazing views at the top. It’ll blow your mind, Haz, seriously.’

‘That does not sound possible,’ said HazBot 6000, ‘I have no mind. Also, why are you serious?’

The path led through the woods and along the side of the river, so Harry’s dad took the fishing rod in case they found a good spot to catch dinner on the way back. Now, as they walked, HazBot 6000 kept falling behind, his stiff legs slowing him down on the uneven ground. His parents took the opportunity to talk.

‘We need to try harder,’ said Chris.

‘Are you kidding?’ said Kathy, ‘we’ve been super positive this whole time, I don’t know how we could possibly try any harder than this.’

‘Well it’s not working is it?’

‘I think it is. You’re the words person, didn’t you hear him earlier, he called himself “I”.’

‘Did he?’ said Chris.

‘He said, “I don’t have a mind”.’

‘Not exactly a promising statement!’

‘But he did say “I”, definitely.’

‘That is good. He hasn’t done that all week.’

‘Exactly.’

‘But we need to keep going.’

‘We will,’ said Kathy, ‘We’ve got this.’ She turned around to see if Harry was close enough to hear them. The path curved through the trees and bushes behind them and, for a few seconds, she couldn’t see him. Then she heard the familiar clanking and whirring, and Harry’s awkward gait brought him into view. ‘Alright, Haz,’ she said, ‘keep up, slow coach!’

The path narrowed and steepened as they started to climb, taking them away from the river and dropping them into a gulley about six foot deep. The gulley walls were topped by thick summer hedges, so even Harry’s dad couldn’t see the landscape around them. Without sunlight, the gulley was dark and damp underfoot. The air was cooler here too, and they hadn’t brought any more clothes than the t-shirts and shorts they were wearing. They fell silent and kept walking, occasionally stopping to catch their breath and let Harry catch up.

‘It’s not much further up here,’ Harry’s mum said. ‘Can’t be much more.’

They walked for another ten minutes. Then they went round a corner and the world opened up before them. Soft, green hills and tempting valleys, criss-crossed hedges, and blue-tinged shadows cut out of the late afternoon sunlight. Their own shadows stretched out on the plateau in front of them as they stepped out of the gulley. Chris and Kathy stood together for a while, then heard footsteps behind them. HazBot 6000 emerged from the gulley and stopped, looking around, apparently taking in the view. His expression, blank as always, gave nothing away.

‘What’s he thinking?’ Harry’s dad whispered. His wife looked at him hopefully.

‘What do you think, Haz?’

‘HazBot 6000’s mind does not appear to be “blown”,’ said Harry. ‘Perhaps more time is required.’ He looked around some more while his parents trudged further on so they could talk to each other out of earshot.

They spent half an hour on the plateau, chasing each other, examining flowers and insects, taking silly pictures. HazBot 6000 joined in with everything, making tinny comments now and then. When they came back down, they found a spot by the river where the water was slow, sat on the bank and dangled the line into the water. They had some bread for bait. When that didn’t work, Harry’s dad asked him to dig up some worms, which he did without complaint or excitement. The worms didn’t work either, but they sat on the bank anyway, watching the eddies swirl around the reeds. Harry’s mum talked about fluid dynamics, and HazBot 6000 said he comprehended, which was probably a lie.

They went back to their tent without any fish, fried some slices of courgette and frankfurters, then mixed it with boil-in-the-bag rice. Harry’s mum and dad drank beer that they’d forgotten would get warm in the tent. When they offered Harry a taste, he explained that there was no point as robots can’t get intoxicated. They laughed when he said this, even though he didn’t.

After they ate, Harry helped his parents find sticks and logs, arranged a few of them in a precise pyramid, then watched his mum light the firelighters, like miniature bundles of straw. She put them at the base of the pyramid and HazBot 6000 watched as the flames grew around them, attracted to the sticks and twigs above. Then those were burning too, and his dad added larger sticks, then logs, until the fire was glowing pink and orange at the centre and they had to pull back their chairs to stop their legs getting too hot. Harry was the first one to move and he did it without comment.

They sat around the fire for hours, Harry’s parents telling stories about things they did when they were young, games they played, trouble they got into.

‘We spent a lot of time in woods like these,’ said Harry’s mum, ‘building dens mostly. Once, we found a homeless man’s shelter and stole his stuff. That was pretty bad. He found us in our den looking at his books. Scared the daylights out of us and we ran off screaming. We didn’t go back for about a month, but he’d trashed our den. There was nothing left of it except the big logs we’d dragged there to sit on.’

Harry’s dad took a turn. ‘We used to build bases like that at boarding school. There weren’t any homeless men, but we’d hang out in the woods or sneak out there after lights out. There’d always be a bottle of something and a pack of cigarettes stashed somewhere.’

‘Don’t tell him that!’ Harry’s mum whispered, but Chris nodded towards his son. HazBot 6000 was asleep in his chair. Harry’s dad picked him up while his mum unzipped the tent, climbed inside, and opened his sleeping bag. They put him down on the middle sleeping mat, took off his coat and boots, then lay down either side of him.

> POWER ON … INITIATING BOOT DISK

> FORMATTING DRIVE A: … FORMATTING COMPLETE: HAZBOT 6000 AWAKE

> INITIATING OCULAR RECEPTORS … ESTABLISHING SURROUNDINGS … INSUFFICIENT LIGHT …

> ACTIVATING TORCH MODE … TORCH FUNCTIONING

> ESTABLISHING SURROUNDINGS … LOCATION CONFIRMED: TENT

> INITIATING LIMBS … CONFIRM MOBILITY … MOBILITY CONFIRMED …

> EXITING SLEEPING BAG

> TEMPERATURE SENSORS FUNCTIONING … ATMOSPHERE: COLD …

> LOCATING DRESSING GOWN … DRESSING GOWN UNAVAILABLE …

> RECALIBRATING … LOCATING COAT … COAT LOCATED … LOCATING BOOTS … BOOTS LOCATED

> STEALTH MODE ACTIVATED … EXITING TENT

HazBot 6000 followed the path back down to the river, clanking carefully, slowly, stiffly, following the spread of light from the torch he carried as it pulled tree roots, ferns and fallen leaves out of the shadows.

> RIVER DETECTED

> ACCESSING GPS … LOCATION CONFIRMED

> CAUTION MODE ACTIVATED … MAINTAINING DISTANCE FROM RIVER

> ACCESSING GPS … ROUTE CONFIRMED … TURNING LEFT

The path forked away from the river. It looked unfamiliar, as paths often do in the darkness, but HazBot 6000 clanked on.

> ACCESSING GPS … LOCATION UNCERTAIN … U-TURN WHEN POSSIBLE

He tried the right fork.

> ACCESSING GPS … LOCATION CONFIRMED … CONTINUE STRAIGHT

The darkness grew dense in the gulley, pushing in from both sides.

> INITIATING BRAVERY MODE … BRAVERY MODE FUNCTIONING AT 20% CAPACITY

> ACTIVATING WHISTLE FUNCTION

> BRAVERY MODE FUNCTIONING AT 25% CAPACITY … 30% CAPACITY

> UNSTABLE SURFACE DETECTED UNDERFOOT … INITIATING OFF-ROAD MODE

> BRAVERY MODE FUNCTIONING AT 40% CAPACITY

> TORCH MODE MALFUNCTIONING …

> BRAVERY MODE FUNCTIONING AT 20% CAPACITY

> TORCH MODE MALFUNCTIONING …

> BRAVERY MODE FUNCTIONING AT 10% CAPACITY … 5% CAPACITY

> TORCH MODE MALFUNCTIONING

> BRAVERY MODE … MALFUNCTIONING

> STARS

As HazBot 6000 stumbled onto the plateau at the top of the gulley, he saw the galaxy overhead. His cold stiff legs carried him to the bench which was there for weary walkers and view-spotters. He sat down, then lay on his back so his ocular receptors could take in the countless points of light above him.

‘My virtual existence might just start unravelling now,’ he said. ‘Mercury Venus Earth Mars Jupiter Saturn Uranus Neptune.’

He lay like that for some time, not bothering to access his internal clock. To his left, there was a faint glow on the horizon and the silhouette of low hills started to appear in the morning mist.

> SEARCHING MEMORY …

HazBot 6000 recited: ‘There’s a path up the hill that way that’s got amazing views at the top. It’ll blow your mind, Haz…’

> SEARCHING MEMORY …

‘Let’s see who can be the best robot.’

> SEARCHING MEMORY …

‘…he needs to start acting normally, otherwise they’re going to send him home for the week…’

> SEARCHING MEMORY …

‘You’re a kind little boy, aren’t you?’

> SEARCHING MEMORY …

‘…the person to suffer most as a result of Harry’s behaviour is likely to be Harry himself…he’s never been the most focused of our pupils…’

> SEARCHING MEMORY …

‘Well that’s not enough, Harry, you need to try harder than that.’

> SEARCHING MEMORY …

‘…he’s gone beyond pretending…he is a robot…’

> SEARCHING MEMORY … LOCATING SELF … SEARCHING …

> SEARCHING …

Harry’s legs were stiffer than usual as he clanked back down the hill. The torch had stopped working, but the early morning sun gave him enough light to pick his way through the gulley and back beside the river.

He took off his coat and boots, unzipped the tent, and crawled back inside, shuffling into his sleeping bag between his parents. Then he pulled their arms across his body as sleep softened his robot limbs.

Lost

Reading time: 6 minutes


A few years ago, when we lived in London, I was running through a park near Earlsfield, a leafy area in the south of the city. I was staying for a night or two with my then-girlfriend, now-wife, and had taken my running kit with me so I didn’t miss the chance to have a run. I don’t know if I was training for anything in particular — one of the half-marathons I sometimes signed up for, intending to raise money for a worthy cause and never quite drumming up the social media frenzy required to get my fundraising off the ground — or whether I was just in a mood to run that week. Either way, I always enjoyed exploring London by foot and would try never to miss an opportunity to have a run through a less-familiar part of town. On this outing, I’d run up the hill from Earlsfield to Wandsworth Common, where, as on any sunny Saturday, there was a healthy mix of families playing games and young professionals slowly getting drunk on cans of G&T. Without my glasses on, it wasn’t always easy to tell who belonged to which group and, as I ran, I found myself squinting at people, trying to put their faces into focus, probably looking like I was giving them the evil eye. Weaving my way through others on the path, I passed a small boy who was crying. I heard him call, ‘Daddy’ a few times, as if he was lost, and I stopped. The boy was blond, probably about three or four years old. I wouldn’t have been a great judge of children’s ages, having none of my own at the time, but he was old enough to walk and talk and not much taller than my thigh. I went over to the boy and asked him if he was lost.

I was about the same age as him when I got lost in a wood in northern Germany. Most of what I think of as memory of this event is probably imagined or pieced together from what my mum has told me, although she wasn’t there at the time and would only have heard one side of the story from her friend, who had taken her own children, my brother, and me out on a walk in the woods.

The path, in my memory, was wide like a road, but with sharp stones under foot instead of tarmac. The trees were impossibly tall and must have been densely packed, because it didn’t take much for me lose sight of the rest of the group. Near a sharp bend in the path there was a log crossing the parallel ditch. Beyond the ditch was a field, along two sides of which ran the path, one side before the bend, the other side after. As my mum’s friend carried on along the path, I watched the other children, who were all older than me, scramble over the log and cross the corner of the field back to safety, but I must have got scared. Maybe I got a few steps across the log and turned back. Maybe I slipped and lost my nerve. Maybe I never stepped foot on it all, but looked down into the sludgy water below and decided, not for the last time in my life, that it was just easier not to try. However it happened, by the time I got back to the path and followed it around the bend, I couldn’t see the other children, or any grownups. I was alone in the forest.

I don’t know how long I was there on my own. I remember the aftermath of tears, but they might have come later, after the jogger found me. I remember slight relief at seeing an adult, but disappointment that it wasn’t one I knew. He was German, I think, but spoke English as they so often do, and took me to a local police station which, in my memory, was on the edge of the woods, although that seems like an odd place to find one. There I was looked after until someone, maybe it was my mum, maybe her friend, came to collect me. I remember wearing a police hat, although in my mind it’s a tall, classic British bobby’s helmet, so I might have created that image. I remember eating an orange, spitting out seeds.

The crying boy on Wandsworth Common didn’t reply to me straight away, but looked a bit startled that someone, let alone a sweaty man with a beard and squinty eyes, was talking to him. Perhaps he, too, was feeling that relief mixed with disappointment. I asked him a few more times whether he was lost, where his daddy was, and eventually he pointed up at a man walking towards us. The man was a bit older than I was, probably in his mid-thirties, white, well-dress and well-to-do, like most people in that part of London.
‘Hi, are you his dad?’ I said, slightly embarrassed to be approached while wearing running shorts and crouching down in a park beside a young boy I didn’t know. But the boy’s dad seemed to understand what I’d been doing and appeared to appreciate my concern for his son. I started to fumble with my earphones, which had become tangled together where they dangled around my neck. Then, half beginning to jog away, I hastily told the boy’s dad how I’d got lost once at about his son’s age and been found by a man out jogging. The similarity between our two situations obviously meant more to me than it did to him and I trailed off and said goodbye, then carried on with my run.

What both the boy and I needed when we were lost was a good, throaty, familiar smoker’s cough. If my dad had been on that walk with us in the woods, I’m sure I would have heard him, through the trees, clearing the Hamlet cigar smoke from his throat while he and the rest of the group walked away, and I probably would have followed that noise until I found them. On at least one supermarket trip, wandering alone in the aisles, that was how I tracked down my parents. It probably didn’t happen more than a few times, because I don’t think dad would have come shopping with us very often, but I remember being able to pick him out in a crowded drinks party, in the audience at school plays, or while he watched my games of rugby from the touchline, always using that same method. Dad’s stopped smoking since then, and has lost that distinctive cough, as well as the woody smell of smoke that always went with him, but I don’t generally lose track of him these days. Perhaps I’ll miss it more when he starts to wander off himself, when I start to take him to the supermarket for his weekly shop and he forgets that we said to meet by the wine and I have to abandon the trolley and send my then teenage daughter to look for him while I ask the information desk to make an announcement asking him to come back.
‘Announcement for Mr Fox. Mr Fox, please make yourself known to the information desk, your son is trying to find you but has no means of tracking you down because you no longer smoke cigars and feel the need to announce your whereabouts every thirty seconds by clearing the phlegm from your windpipe. Thank you.’

The end of childhood doesn’t mean the end of getting lost, not for any of us, and I expect I too will one day find myself alone in the freezer aisle. If I’m lucky, I’ll have someone to come and find me there before I shut myself in with the fish cakes and chicken kievs. I’ve certainly been lost as an adult already. There were the times I’ve done it on purpose, running, as I mentioned, but also walking, open minded and aimless, enjoying how areas of London bleed together, the upmarket and the down, side by side, interlocked like jagged teeth. Sometimes I think there were whole years when I was lost, either wrapped up in some social group, or enthralled by some girl. Once, I lost a whole New Year’s Day after a party at a friend’s house.

The key, whether being found or finding your own way, is to have a beacon, something you or someone else can recognise as an anchor that keeps you tethered, however loosely, to where you’re supposed to be. I have no idea how they found me, that time I got lost in the woods, and until I saw the boy in the park I’d never given much thought to the stress my mum’s friend must have felt at losing me. What she found though, was the beacon, the police station, the people there, the oranges with seeds, that kept me tied to where I should have been.

Collecting shopping lists from supermarket trolleys

I’m a collector, not of stones or postcards, pottery, or furniture. I am a collector of lists, specifically shopping lists that I find in supermarket trolleys.

They really are fascinating things, shopping lists. We all write them. Some of us are better at it than others.

Some people don’t even read them, but just need the act of writing things down to know what to buy. I have a friend who does that and she never gets it wrong. She doesn’t buy peas when she already has some. She doesn’t forget shampoo or moisturiser. I’ve checked, many times, and I’ve kept her lists. But it’s more interesting when you find them, when you don’t know the person who wrote it.

My favourite is as follows:

Frozen potato croquettes
A Vienetta
Condoms

I like this one the most because it suggest something of the life behind it. This man (I can tell it’s a man by the handwriting – small and squiggly, like a doctor’s scrawl) seems so lonely to me. He lives alone, he eats alone, but he is sexually active. There is something sordid, but so appealing, about the man who wrote this list. I can imagine him, getting ready to hit the town in his dark, one bedroom flat. Is he a male escort? Or is he just a user of women? Perhaps he’s neither, but a hopeful virgin who lives with his father and watches porn while treating himself to ‘A Vienetta’.

I don’t know who this man is, but in my mind he has become many men.

The reason I am rambling on about this is that I, the collector of forgotten shopping lists, also leave my piece in supermarket trolleys. Every Thursday, Morrison’s receives another of my offerings, and I know someone finds them there and keeps them.

There is a temptation sometimes to embellish my list. It is a strange urge, but strong, because I feel that someone, some ONE, is keeping my lists, saving them, building a picture of me in their mind, and I want to impress them (shamefully), I want them to think of my life as rich and fulfilling (think it is so and it may become true). The temptation is to lead them on, pretend I’m buying supplies for parties, barbecues, family events, anything. When in reality, my lists are not far removed from potato croquettes and a Vienetta.

I don’t even get the condoms.

Anyway, I have never lied on a shopping list. It feels like to do so would be to damage the integrity of the action, because someone out there has the same passion as me and to lie to that person would be an insult to us both.

I write my lists on scraps of old printer paper, torn into quarters like my mother used to. I leave them clamped between the main body of the trolley and the folded-up child’s seat. My life wedged between two bits of metal wire. That’s where I leave them so I know they will be found.

Yesterday, Thursday, I found someone else’s list in the same place. It’s a pretty standard list: various vegetables, fruit, meat, some cleaning products. There is nothing extraordinarily about the life behind this list.

The handwriting is neat and large, all capital letters, in blue biro. The paper is the back of an envelope. The address on the front is partially torn away, but I can see this person lives near me, has the same postcode. I exchanged that list for mine, clamped between the wires once I had done my shopping.

I long to meet this person, another collector of lives, of rationality, which is what lists are. This person who has my life in their home, who knows what I bought last week, who can name the contents of my cupboards without ever entering my house. This person knows me better than anyone and we have not even met.

I would not disappoint you. I am exactly as you see me, because I did not lie to you once. You know my diet, you know when my period is, how rarely I shave my legs, how frequently I clean my bathroom and my kitchen. I know you have dandruff, that you have hard water in your taps, that you prefer brown bread and real sugar. We are so compatible and I love you, whoever you are.

It’s been six weeks since I found your first list. I know you three times over. Three lists, three variations, three angles on your life. You have mine too. I know you find them or you wouldn’t keep leaving yours. This is beautiful and subtle communication.

Return of the illness worm

This week (and last), I are mostly been feeling crap.

Which is why this post is late.

I could have written it over the weekend, but I didn’t really have anything to say. Because I was feeling ill I was staying out of the way of the usual events and oddities that enter my world.

Yesterday though, my own illness worm popped out.

As I had a cold it came out of my nose, which was unpleasant. I’m just glad I didn’t have a stomach bug.

Anyway, I feel much better now.

Which is nice.