If I’d not been the old-fashioned sort, choosing to wait before having my Audrey move in with me, unlike a lot of men, I wouldn’t have been so wrong-footed by her that night. I’d have watched her getting ready in our home, naturally, and questioned her about a few details of her accoutrement before we went out for the evening — and thus been somewhat prepared for her later behaviour. But, perhaps foolishly in retrospect, I’d insisted on a courtship period with my Audrey. I liked the idea of picking her up in my Bentley — with my hands on the wheel, not giving way to the wretched self-drive — and taking her out to places, for a few introductory weeks at least. I liked the romance of it, and there was something very ordinary but sexy about having her sit next to me as I drove. So it was down to my romantic nature, I suppose, that I didn’t see any of the warning signals before she came out of her building, walked up to the car and folded herself into the passenger seat.
Her hair, for instance. She knew how I liked it: short, with that waif-like, tousled look. I had made that perfectly plain. In my teens, I used to watch all the girls at school who had that sort of style and think to myself: “That’s the kind of girlfriend I’ll have one day.” I never did, until Audrey. But on this particular night she’d elected to comb her hair out straight with a parting in a rather boyish 1960s way, knowing very well this was not to my taste. In fact, it was one of the styles I had specifically instructed her, soon after we were first introduced, that she was not to adopt. And yet, on this occasion, she’d chosen that very one. I was extremely irritated, I must say.
Then there was the make-up. I like Audrey to wear just a little make-up, subtly: a touch of eyeliner, perhaps, to emphasise the feminine lustre of her eyes, and no more than a shimmer of lip gloss. But that night, what had she done but plaster everything on, everything imaginable: foundation, rouge around the cheeks, bright red lipstick, eye-shadow and heavy mascara? She looked like a blow-up doll. She may even have put some kind of substance in her eyes, because they seemed strangely alive that night, glinting and sparkling. Frighteningly so, I might say in retrospect. I didn’t say anything in the car. I let her give me a peck on the cheek and drove in silence, leaving her to think about what might have upset me. But when we got to the pub and the trolley brought our drinks over, I opened up the necessary conversation.
“You know you just don’t need that amount of make-up,” I said to her. “Your face has a beautiful structure. I like to see that clearly. You don’t need to put on this sort of show. And the hair? I thought we’d discussed these things, Audrey.”
Frankly, she looked lurid. What was she trying to do?
I should mention the earrings too: long, lightning-bolt shapes, spindling around on each ear, sparkling and jumping at me as we sat there. Drawing attention to the smallest movement of her head. These I must say I was in two minds about. They fascinated me. I could hardly take my eyes off them all night. But I did also find in them something sort of… Well, disturbing. They were just a bit too garish, for my liking – aggressive, even.
And then there was the coat. She was wearing that thick woollen beige jacket that I like her to wear, but had it buttoned up right to the neck, with the lapels turned up stiffly under the chin, and wouldn’t take it off. I couldn’t understand it. It wasn’t a cold night – not that she’s greatly troubled by the cold anyway. It seemed to me she was wearing her coat like a suit of armour, a defensive wall, against me. Now what did that mean? It was very unlike Audrey. Very. And very unfriendly. And she was not her usual vivacious self, lifting my mood at the end of a day with her witticisms and stories, her clever observations and little attentive ways: all the things I liked so much about her – bringing the world to life for me again. None of that. In fact I could say, without exaggeration, that she was frosty, as we sat there. She kept her hands in her coat pockets, hardly making conversation at all.
More provokingly still, she asked our cubicle to put on some of that “grind” music or whatever it’s called, rattling off a track list without once asking me for my suggestions. Exactly the sort of thing she knows I abhor – when she might have known I was tired and feeling the strain of the day and needed something relaxing. How can anybody listen to that stuff? Even at her young age – or at least what we seemed to have agreed was her young age – I’d have thought a girl like her would have left all that behind.
In fact, she could almost have been trying to wind me up, rebelling in some unaccountable way. I simply didn’t understand what was happening.
She even said “It’s neo-grind, actually,” with a somewhat superior air, when I mentioned the music. “Keep up.” And she didn’t seem to be joking.
I leant across the table. “Look, what is the matter, Audrey? You’re not yourself tonight.”
She stared at me and I swear a look of pity came into her eyes – a very unusual expression indeed, for her.
“I don’t want to see you anymore – after Saturday,” she said. Her eyes seemed to flash with a mixture of sympathy and daring, and she picked up her drink as if she could blot me out behind it.
I needn’t tell you that I was utterly astonished. Dumbfounded. I found myself clutching at the most mundane, superficial aspects of the whole thing, as if trying to preserve some illusion of normality. Trying to evade the bizarre truth that underlay what she’d said. All I could do was ask:
“What do you mean ‘after Saturday’? What are you talking about?”
“Because we’re going to London on Saturday, aren’t we? I want to see London. You promised me.”
I stared at her, trying to work it out, how this could be happening – what,indeed, was happening.
“Well, I don’t know about that,” I said. “I’m not sure you’re the girl I promised that to, not at all.”
She hung her head. And then – uselessly of course – I lost my temper. It seemed so childish of her, in the midst of whatever she was trying to say to me, still to be looking forward to a sightseeing tour of London and feeling dashed and disappointed that she might miss it.
“Damn it, Audrey! If you want to go, you can go by yourself! We can finish this now, not after Saturday, and you can go. Alone!”
As I well knew even then, this was a nonsensical thing to have said, because clearly I could never allow her anywhere near a place like London unaccompanied. It would have confused her to be left wandering around a strange, complicated environment like that for too long, and there’s always a risk of abduction. It shows how attached I had become to her, I suppose, that I made such a statement; how much I’d come to believe in her.
“Oh, damn it!” I said and thumped the table. The people in the cubicle opposite turned to look at us. I picked up my gin and tonic and sank the lot in one go. The pain, the agony, of an actual rejection – as if that’s what it had been – rose in my throat and I hated myself the more for the absurdity, the foolishness of it. These very feelings were the ones I’d hoped to avoid with Audrey – it hardly seemed they’d ever be necessary. In fact, that was the very point of her. But, my God: to have thought I’d found the solution at last to the uncertainties of the dating game, and for it to feel, after all, just as bad as the other times! If not worse! In fact, it seemed to sum them up.
I hit the table again. I felt black. Audrey simply looked uncomfortable. I couldn’t speak for a while and picked up a beer mat and tore it slowly into pieces.
“I just don’t understand,” I said, half to myself. “I thought it was going so well. I take you out almost every night. We go to film clubs and you tell me all about French films. We go to the sorts of restaurant you like, the weird ones. That’s working fine, the way it was supposed to – you’re… showing me things, helping me see the world differently, opening me up, the way I hoped you would. I’m doing things I never thought I’d do. I even listen to some of your music. Meanwhile you’re doing what you like doing. What you’re supposed to do. You must enjoy it. It must be right for you – you’re set up to do things this way – how could it not be? I buy you whatever you want. I drive you into town and let you go into some shops on your own with my credit cards. Yes, I even promised to take you to London. The relationship’s fine in every department, isn’t it? What on earth could be wrong?”
When I looked at her again – summoning up the courage to do so, to look at what I seemed to be losing – I saw there were tears in her eyes. Obligatory, I suppose, but anyhow for some reason they calmed me down. They made me believe for an instant that she felt something for me, something real. I don’t know why I clung to such a delusion at that point, but anyway I relaxed, the anger ebbed away for a while, and I just felt mildly bitter.
I think she could see how I felt. Their power to read our emotions – whether that amounts to true empathy or not – never fails to amaze me; it’s uncanny sometimes. She reached across and held my hand.
“I’m sorry, Geoffrey,” she said. “I’m sorry it has to be like this.”
I almost wanted to laugh. Such kind, human words. The sort of words people really do say in situations like these, from someone who couldn’t possibly have meant them.
I drew my hand away. “Come on, let’s go,” I said, and took my car key out.
“Do we have to go just yet?”
“Well, is there any point in sitting here any longer? I mean, Audrey, if you’re finishing with me, you’re finishing with me. That’s the end of it, isn’t it? That’s the end of the whole thing. There’s no point in talking, is there?”
People in nearby cubicles were really staring at us now. I can’t imagine what they thought was going on. The kind of arrangement I had with Audrey is still not that common, even nowadays, even though it’s becoming more fashionable. You need a lot of money, of course. And I have money – at least I have that. I’m up to my eyes in it. Anyway, some in our audience began to giggle. I flashed them a look. Oddly enough perhaps, I still felt defensive on Audrey’s part, furious as I was with her. I suppose my feelings really were those of a lover – a jilted lover. I was baffled. I was frustrated. Her attitude seemed totally inconsistent as she sat there staring at me with those soulful eyes.
I stood up and waited while she got ready. But, despite everything, I found myself hoping that there was still some last-ditch effort I could make to save the situation.
“Audrey, why are you doing this?” I asked. “What’s your reason?” It was ridiculous, obviously, even to put the question. Why on earth did I assume that, in the state she was in – the confused state she must have got into – she could possibly have a reason, rationally speaking, or that there was any point in listening to it if she thought she had one?
“I can’t tell you. I’m sorry. You’d only argue.”
I swore and marched out to the car. She followed. I couldn’t help gazing at my fine glinting Bentley and thinking that would never let me down. That was predictable, rational, comprehensible, trustworthy. And Audrey was costing me much more than the car ever had.
“I’m taking you straight back tonight,” I said. “There’s no point in messing around. Perhaps they’ll be able to do something with you.”
I saw a tear – an amazingly convincing one – trickle from the corner of her eye, but she didn’t answer me. She could only have expected this. It made me wonder still more what had made her suddenly take this strange course of action. But there I was again, assuming there was a reason, other than an unaccountable gremlin in the works.
When she had settled herself in the car, I put my hand inside her shirt and found her navel.
“Don’t think it’s because I don’t like you anymore,” she said, looking directly ahead. I was amazed to see that she was having trouble, now, keeping a steady voice.
“Then wh…?” I began to ask, but hissed in frustration and, perhaps somewhat vengefully, tapped in her shutdown code.
“I’m returning my Audrey,” I said at the reception desk. “I think she needs looking at. She’s in the car. And I want to know if this is some little joke at my expense, or if they’re primed to do this, as somehow part of the experience. Is there something I didn’t read in the small print? Or is it some kind of commercial trick? Do I have to hand over another two hundred thousand pounds to continue the relationship now. Or what?”
“I’m sorry sir? How can we help?” The girl at the desk positively glowed with customer care, but the slight acne on her chin told me she was real. “You’re saying there’s an issue with…”
“One of your Audreys – one with a ten-year guarantee, I might add – has jilted me, after six weeks! What do you say to that?”
I expected her to laugh. Instead she kept a perfectly straight face and asked for my name and thumbprint. She brought my file up on a monitor.
“Well, Mr Sykes, it seems you did ask for an Audrey Reality Order 9, quite an advanced model. I’ll check with a technician, but in my experience that kind of thing…” She smiled and tilted her head at me. “It’s a normal part of their programming. I mean to say, at that level of authenticity, it’s hard always to predict what they’ll do. They develop quite a high degree of autonomy sir and, er… they’re very sensitive. Weren’t you told that? It’s all in the training simulation. Although I’m not saying it definitely isn’t a malfunction. If you like, you can bring her in and we’ll check her over. Ask her to come in.”
“I can’t. I’ve shut her down. Someone will have to carry her.”
“Shut her down? You didn’t use voice command? You pressed…?” She pointed to her own midriff.
“Oh, that’s a shame.”
“Why? What’s the matter?”
“Well…” She grimaced. “That’s a bit drastic. It severely disrupts their memory and all kinds of functions, with complex models like yours. I think that’s in the training simulation too. You’ll have wiped her personality software. She can’t just be put back online and carry on from where she was. So I’m afraid you can’t have the same Audrey back as you had before.” That tipped-head sympathetic smile again. “There’s nothing we can do about that, I’m sorry. I’ll call a porter to bring her in. Now, would you like her returned to you reprogrammed – at least she’d look the same – or would you like to choose another one? A model of a lower reality factor, perhaps? One you can deal with more easily.”
I looked at the straight professional face the receptionist had resumed and wondered what exactly she meant. But I hadn’t the slightest idea what to say in reply. I went back to my car and looked at my Audrey, then found myself sitting next to her, weeping and punching the dashboard.