Episode Thirty Eight
Mary turned from the computer on which she had been working.
Aiden entered. Behind him a strange individual followed. He was wearing a fancy dress costume.
Mary blinked. Why are you wearing plastic armour like a stormtrooper from Star Wars?
The man in fancy dress stopped behind Aiden.
‘Greg Clark wanted to see you PM. But he had to leave.’ Aiden turned and gestured at the costumed man. ‘He left you this, he thought you’d like to see it.’
‘Good isn’t it? It’s a robot. It’s still experimental, Clark tells me. The first prototype Autonomous Support System robot.’
‘You can talk to it. I think it’s called Georgy.’
‘WHAT CAN I DO FOR YOU, ADRIAN?’
‘Yes, definitely. See it responded. Every time you say Georgy it…’
‘HOW CAN I HELP YOU?’
‘Aiden, get this…’ words failed her. A machine. Greg has left me with a bloody talking machine. What do I want a yakking machine for? ‘What does it do?’
‘It’s to help old people. The idea is that they will be provided one by the NHS to care for them. I think they will provide companionship and help. Apparently, they’re better than people.’
‘And it’s called Georgy?’
‘PLEASED TO MEET YOU. MY NAME IS GEORGY. IF YOU WANT ME TO RESPOND, ALL YOU HAVE TO DO IS PREFACE THE REQUEST WITH MY NAME. MAY I KNOW YOUR NAME?’
‘Georgy, you may call her PM.’
‘PLEASED TO MEET YOU PAM.’
‘No, it PM.’
‘WHAT CAN I DO FOR YOU, PAM? DO YOU NEED REFRESHMENT? I CAN GET YOU A NICE CUP OF TEA. DO YOU HAVE MILK AND SUGAR IN YOUR TEA?’
‘Can you do that?’ Mary frowned. ‘He’s not moving.’
‘It said you have to preface your request with Georgy.’
‘DO YOU WANT YOUR CUP OF TEA NOW, ADRIAN?’
‘PM, Clark said he’ll come by tomorrow to pick it up again. He’d like you to try it out in the meantime as he wants to get the NHS to order some for trials. I think he’s looking for your support when he negotiates with Health.’
‘I see.’ Why can’t he fight his own battles? Why do I have to get involved? Does everything have to come through me?
‘I’ll be going, then.’
‘If you don’t need me PM, I will leave you with…’ there was a slight pause, ‘…this robot.’ You were going to call him Georgy then, weren’t you?
‘Fine. Fine. I’m sure I can handle the thing.’ She gazed at the white plastic mannequin that stood immobile in the middle of her study. Lacquered white plastic and black rubber made it look just like something out of a science fiction movie. I wasn’t wrong about that. Will old people like it? And the name Georgy? What if they dislike the name? She was startled out of her thoughts as a door clunked shut.
‘Georgy. Fetch me a gin and tonic from the drinks cabinet.’
‘DO YOU WANT ICE AND LEMON IN THAT, PAM?’
‘Yes, please.’ It’s a machine, I don’t have to say please.
‘SORRY, PAM. WOULD YOU LIKE ICE AND LEMON IN YOUR GIN AND TONIC?’
‘Georgy, yes, ice and lemon, please.’
‘YOU DO NOT NEED TO THANK ME UNTIL I HAVE PROVIDED YOU WITH THE DRINK YOU REQUESTED.’
‘Well, it’s polite to do so.’
The automaton shifted. It walked in a realistic way over to the cabinet before pausing. It then reached out and opened first one, then the second door. It did nothing for half a minute before it reached in and pulled out a glass. This is going to take for ages.
Mary turned away from watching the robot stop and start as it prepared her drink. I bet it’s a disaster. I can imagine gin all over the floor. How will I ever explain the mess to the cleaning lady. She’ll be angry, and I’ll feel humiliated. Why did I accept to have this, this gadget?
She turned back to see what the machine was doing. It was bending down and seemingly inspecting the labels on the bottles. Good luck with that.
Her phone rang.
She checked who it was. James. I wonder what he wants? She picked up the receiver. ‘Hello, James. How are things?’ I bloody hope he’s not telling me he’s got enough letters from those bastards to trigger an election contest.
‘PM, you know the importance I place on keeping you fully briefed on what’s happening in the party.’
‘Yes, James, and I do appreciate these little chats of ours.’
‘You are not trying to patronise me, are you Mary?’
‘Heaven forbids.’ She stopped talking. How can I put it? ‘I am hearing that the pile of letters on your desk is growing ever larger.’
‘Ah, yes. There does seem to be a growing dissatisfaction about the Brexit you negotiated with Bernard.’
‘And you have a suggestion.’
‘I would never seek to suggest to you Mary. Call it an observation. You see, what with the rising anger within the party and the troubles you’re having with the Unionists, if you could throw them all a bone, it might make things easier.’
‘What? Give them something? That’ll only make them bay for more.’
‘Mary, do you really want to end up having to defend your premiership in a leadership election at this time? Brexit is four months away. For God’s sake, keep the ship on the road. Don’t forget that Labour has jumped up in the polls since the Brexit agreement was released. A leadership election could trigger the government’s fall.’
‘It’s up to you then, James, to prevent the contest happening.’
‘I’m bound by party rules, Mary. If I could, I would…’
‘Well maybe you need to lose a few of those letters down the back of your sofa.’
‘Mary! How improper.’
‘I’m sure you can be creative when you have to.’ She paused. ‘As you were when it came to Quinn.’
‘That was different.’ He stopped speaking for a moment. Mary could almost hear him thinking. ‘What if you backed down on the most contentious issues? Gave a bit, as it were. Compromised.’
‘I can’t risk the reputation of Mary Pyle being tarnished by unwinningness.’
‘What about all the other ways your reputation has been tarnished?’
‘It’s mind over matter, …. If I don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.’
‘And the country?’
‘I think it was Margaret Thatcher who said there’s no such thing as society.’ Mary paused for dramatic effect. ‘Equally, there’s no such thing as “the country”.’ That sounds really grand. I wonder if I can use that in a speech?
‘ERROR. ERROR. ERROR.’
‘What’s that noise?’
Mary gazed over towards the automaton. Bottles lay scattered over the floor. There was a pool of liquid where a glass had been placed on the parquet. Several lemon slices and a pile of ice cubes surrounded it.
‘I’ve got to go, James. I’ll call you back.’ She cut off the connection.
Mary ran to the door. ‘Adrian! Get in here.’
* * *
Andrew accelerated. He overtook the slow-moving truck before returning to the inside lane.
‘How much further?’
Andrew glanced at the clock. ‘About twenty miles or so.’
‘I need to go to the loo.’
‘Jill, could you hold out until we get there? It’ll be about twenty-five minutes.’
‘I suppose so, but if you see a toilet, please stop.’
‘Fine.’ He checked his speed. Less than sixty. He accelerated up to sixty-five miles an hour. ‘You keep an eye out. I’ve got to drive. The traffic’s bad.’
‘We could have gone by train.’
‘But I need to bring back some stuff. It would have been difficult on the train.’ He patted her thigh. ‘It also means we can nip out if you feel my parents are too overwhelming.’
‘They seem nice enough on FaceTime. Will they be different face-to-face?’
‘They’re great. You’ll love them.’
‘As you say.’ She patted her belly. ‘They don’t know about the baby yet.’
‘They’ll be fine about that.’
‘If you say so.’
Andrew concentrated on the traffic. The A1 was its usual self. He had decided not to bother listening to the traffic news, it was too depressing.
About half an hour later, he turned off onto the A47. ‘Not long now, Jill. How’s the bladder.’
‘You don’t sound too happy.’
‘You try being pregnant.’
‘I think that might be somewhat difficult.’ He then quickly went on. ‘That was a joke, by the way.’
‘Yes, of course it was.’
‘We’re not going to argue when we meet my parents, I hope.’
‘We’re not arguing.’
‘No, we’re not.’
He turned off the main road onto a B road. He was in familiar territory. He recognised the landmarks. Nothing seemed to have changed. It was not like London.
He turned off the road onto a gravel driveway. The tires crunched over the stones. Ahead, nestled behind trees was an old Edwardian house. He parked their rented Peugeot next to a yellow Volvo.
‘Bloody time. I’m desperate.’ Jill got out and made for the door.
‘Wait!’ Andrew leapt out and chased after her.
The front door opened.
‘Andrew, Jill, how lovely.’
‘I need the toilet.’
‘Oh, yes, yes. Let me show you.’ She escorted Jill inside. She turned and shouted at Andrew. ‘Your dad’s in the lounge.’
‘No, I’m not, I’m here.’
‘Hello Dad. Lovely to see you.’
His father gazed over his shoulder at the Peugeot. ‘Is it any good?’
‘It got us here. If you mean, would I buy one. No, I wouldn’t.’ He grinned. ‘I know how much you take against French cars.’
‘Well, you probably don’t remember the Renault we had and how we had to have it in the garage every other week. A total lemon.’
‘That model Espace was a very popular car.’
‘It wasn’t popular with me, at least.’ He took Andrew’s arm. ‘You must come and see my latest project.’
‘World War two again, then?’
‘I’ve got this amazing one-thirty second scale Mustang I’ve been making. It’s a beaut.’
‘I’m sure it is. You’ll have to show it to me.’
‘It’s not quite finished yet, but I suppose I might let you peak at it.’
His mother appeared. ‘Is Jill all right? Did she get car sick?’ She gave him a reproachful look.
‘She’ll be fine. We should have stopped so she could go to the toilet. She was frantic to go when we arrived.’
‘She should have gone behind a hedge.’
‘Roger, that might be fine for you, but for a young woman, it’s more complicated.’
‘You used to do it when we went rambling.’
‘That was different.’
There was a noise and Jill appeared. Andrew went over to her. ‘You OK? Mum thinks you’re looking unwell.’
She glanced at them. ‘Hello Roger, Mary. Lovely to finally meet you both.’
‘An you too, Jill.’ Mary took her arm. ‘Would you like a cup of tea?’
‘Oh, yes please.’
‘We’re very informal here. We tend to use the kitchen for most things.’ Mary led her towards the back of the house. Andrew followed behind his dad as they traipsed into the kitchen.
Mary put on the kettle. Andrew found a place to sit at the kitchen table. Jill joined him. Roger sat down opposite.
Andrew watched as his mother prepared the tea. While the kettle boiled, she brought over a plate of biscuits and placed them on the table. Roger reached for one.
Mary slapped his hand. ‘Guests first.’ She picked up the plate and offered it to Jill, who took a digestive.
‘Do you have any plans for the weekend, Andrew?’
‘Nothing’s been planned.’
‘I don’t understand your generation at all. Don’t you want to see any of your friends while you’re up?’
‘Maybe. If they’re around.’
The kettle whistled. Mary went off to make the tea.
‘The way you young ones live your life is beyond me.’
‘Yes, Dad, you have told me this many times.’
Mary returned with four assorted mugs and a milk jug and placed them on the table. She went away again only to return with the teapot. She sat down next to Roger.
Under the table Jill squeezed Andrew’s thigh.
‘Mum, Dad, there’s something we need to tell you…’
‘I knew it.’
‘Hush, Roger, let Andrew finish.’ She beamed at him.
‘Well, it’s like this.’ Andrew turned to Jill and smiled encouragingly at her. ‘Jill and I are planning to get married.’
Roger jumped to his feet. ‘I just knew it!’ He rushed around the table and grabbed hold of a startled Jill and kissed her on both cheeks. He let her go. ‘How bloody wonderful.’
‘Yes, congratulations to you both.’ Mary got up and went over and hugged Jill. She then cuddled Andrew. ‘We’re so pleased for you both.’ She took her seat again. Roger found his.
‘There’s something else.’
‘You’re not planning on moving away?’
Jill grabbed Andrew’s hand. ‘I’m pregnant.’
‘Ah!’ Mary looked at Andrew and then took Jill’s free hand. ‘Why that’s wonderful. I’m so pleased for you both.’
‘Are you sure you want to get married with a big bump?’
‘Shush, Roger, what a question. Besides, it’s not your decision. They’ll do what they want.’
‘We plan to get married after the baby’s born.’
‘Very sensible if you ask me.’
‘Roger, you can be so insensitive, really.’
‘It’s fine Mary. Andrew and I have thought it through. The baby’s due in May, so we were thinking of an autumn wedding.’
‘We got married in September. The weather can be lovely at that time of year.’
‘Mum, we haven’t set a date yet.’
‘Well, there’s no rush is there, dear? I mean if you’re a modern couple, you might not even bother to get married and just live together.’
Andrew glanced at Jill. Her jaw was tight. ‘We’ll be getting married.’