Posted on January 25, 2012
Bob did hear her but he took no notice. They had been together almost 35 years and he had learnt that the best way to deal with Grace’s outbursts was to just ignore her. He pressed the remote control and stood back as the machine came to life
“Good evening,” it said, “I am pleased to make your acquaintance.”
“Turn it off,” screamed Grace. “Turn it off or else…”
Bob continued to ignore her and adjusted the volume. “For Christ’s sake, Grace, just get a hold of yourself. It’s not going to hurt you. ”
She rose, gathered up her courage and snapped at him. “So this your surprise birthday present, is it? You told me that it was going to be something special.”
She stared at the metallic figure, standing upright in front of her. It had an over-sized head with large, deep-set eyes, a small nose and a mouth that appeared to have been welded on as an afterthought. Its torso was a simple metallic grey and its two arms were suspended from its shoulders, held in place by a series of rivets. The legs were attached to two enormous black metal boots that protruded from its ankles.
“Grace, just calm down,” said Bob, “This is going to change your life. This is going to make you happy again. You said that you wanted some help around the house.”
“I’m happy as I am, thank you very much. Where on earth did you get it anyway?”
“It’s from work. A prototype. They asked if I could try it out at home. Top secret and all that. We’ve been working on it all year but we’re not sure how it will react in a normal household situation. We think that we have ironed out all the bugs, but we just wanted to be sure before we go public with it.”
“Top secret, indeed. What if it goes berserk?
“Grace, just calm down and watch,” said Bob pressing the button again.
“My name is XTRA. I am the latest version of the AR/1966 developed by the CYBORG Corporation.” The robot’s head turned towards her and its eyes lit up. Grace sank behind the couch.
“Don’t be so stupid,” said Bob, “Get up, Grace and watch.”
She composed herself and stood up, staring at the robot. She was quite a small, woman and only the upper part of her torso remained exposed. Her hands gripped the top of the couch.
The robot moved towards her, held out its right arm and spoke. “Yes, Grace, don’t be frightened. I am here to help you.”
“How did it know my name?” she said, glancing at Bob.
“I remember everything, Grace. Everything you say will be stored in my databank. Your wish is my command.”
“Give it a command,” said Bob. “See what happens.”
“I will not,” said Grace, “I’m not communicating with a lump of metal.”
“But this is no ordinary robot,” said Bob, “Watch this.”
He turned to the robot and spoke, “XTRA! Wash the dishes.”
The robot turned, entered the kitchen and leant over the sink. It turned on the taps and poured washing up liquid into the bowl. It then lifted each plate in turn, washed them with a brush and rinsed them off before placing them on the drainer. It then stopped, turned and nodded. “Mission completed,” it said.
“You see,” smiled Bob, “No more housework, no more chores.”
“But I’ve got you to do the washing up; and I am sure you can still touch your toes even at your age,” said Grace.
“Wait a minute Grace, just watch this. This is no ordinary robot.” Bob moved to the stereo, turned on his favourite music, and approached the robot.”
“XTRA. Dance with me,” said Bob, placing one arm around its waist and holding the other out to his side.
The robot responded, putting its arm on Bob’s shoulder and clasping his other arm tightly. Grace looked on in amazement as her over-sized husband and the robot pirouetted around the room in a beautifully synchronised series of dance routines ranging from the waltz to the foxtrot and finally to a tango. It ended with a finale where the robot lifted Bob into the air, spun him round and round above its head, then threw him upwards towards the ceiling before catching him as he somersaulted towards the floor.
Bob lay there, prostrate in its arms, with his face bright red and his chest pounding as if it was about to explode. “What do you think?” he said.
“Absolutely ridiculous. I’ve never seen anything like it in my life. My husband dancing with a tin man? It’s going back tomorrow. Do you hear me? Tomorrow! I’m going to bed,” shouted Grace manoeuvring herself nervously towards the door.
Grace stayed in bed until Bob had gone to work the next day. She got up, showered and crept down the stairs. She made straight for the kitchen.
“Good morning, Grace,” said the voice. “May I be of assistance?”
Grace almost jumped out of her skin. She turned and there was the robot looking straight at her.
“I could have served you tea in bed if you had liked, Grace.”
She stepped back and opened the drawer, pulling out a knife. She held it out in front of her menacingly and bellowed at the machine.
“Stay away from me, do you hear, you heap of junk? Just keep away from me, or you’ll end up in the scrap yard where you came from.” Grace circled the robot, went into the front room and slammed the door shut. She stepped outside on to the veranda and waited. Eventually, she plucked up her courage and tip toed towards the kitchen window. She peered in and could see the robot standing motionless. She moved forward slowly, entered and spoke.
“Ahem,” she said, “Is there anybody there?”
A light appeared on the front of the robot’s head.
“I asked if anybody was there?”
The machine came to life and spoke. “I apologise if I upset you Grace. I did not mean to alarm you. I am programmed to shut down in these circumstances since my circuitry does not permit aggression of any kind.”
Grace thought for a moment, stared out at overgrown garden and spoke.
“Could you possibly help me to do the garden?”
“Your wish is my command, Grace. I am at your disposal.”
Over the next two hours, the robot weeded the borders, mowed the lawn, cut down old vine branches and watered everything. Grace pulled out the deck chair and lay there snoozing.
“Is there anything else that you want me to do for you, Grace?”
“No, that’s all for now. You can stand down for now,” she said smiling.
“Your wish is my command, Grace.”
“Listen,” said Grace. “I’ve been thinking. I may have had the wrong impression about you. I was thinking that maybe we should give you a real name. A man’s name. XTRA doesn’t sound right to me. What about Arnold?”
“Arn-old is fine by me Grace. I like that.”
At teatime, Bob returned to find Grace relaxed and the robot standing to attention in the living room He was very surprised after her initial reaction.
“How’s XTRA doing?” he asked nervously.
“Who?” she answered.
“Our metal friend.”
“Oh, he’s fine. He’s helped out a lot and I think that he might be OK. ”
“I knew you would get used to him. I’m really pleased, Grace.”
“Oh, by the way. I’ve given him a new name,” she said. “We won’t be calling
him XTRA anymore?”
“No,” said Bob.
“No,” she said firmly. “From now on he’ll be Arnold.”
“ That’s fine by me. If you’re happy with it, that’s all that matters.
Oh, by the way, I have to be away next week. Big meetings in Paris. Will you be OK on your own?”
“Sure. Anyway, I’ve got Arnold to protect me now.”
Grace relaxed like she had never done before. She would get up, give Arnold a series of commands and just sit back as he cleaned the house, did the cooking, washed up, gardened and did the washing. She even trained it to read her stories and to perfect its dance routines. She particularly enjoyed the slow waltzes at the end of the day and the firmness of its hands around her waist. Then one evening she was sitting on the couch reading the paper when Arnold appeared. “I have finished my duties, Grace and wondered if you would like me to anything else for you?”
Grace stared at the robot and stretched out her leg towards him, pushing her foot against his knee and prodding it. “Can you massage my feet for me, Arnold? Just gently. I feel so tired for some reason. I must have done too much today.”
Arnold knelt down, raised her feet up onto his thighs and removed her slippers. He placed his hands on the soles of her feet and moved his fingers up and down, stroking them gently, massaging between her toes.
Grace was in ecstasy. She had never felt such warmth in her body since her first fling in the back of a Morris Minor when she was 18.
“That’s fine,” she answered, “just fine.” She closed her eyes and drifted into a deep sleep, her whole body tingling from head to foot. When she woke up, Arnold was standing beside the couch with his arms by his side.
“Arnold,” she said, smiling. “Can you carry me up to bed. I feel so exhausted.”
Arnold lent over her, placed one arm under her bottom and the other around her back. He picked her up and took her up the stairs in a series of staccato steps. She lay there with one arm wrapped around his shoulders and the other dangling by her side. He lay her down on the bed and pulled the covers over her. “Will that be all, Grace?” he asked.
“I don’t think so,” said Grace, pulling back the sheets and stretching out her arms and legs in front of him.
Bob returned at the weekend to find his wife radiant and in better health than he had ever seen her for many years. The house was spotless, the gardens magnificent and Grace was more relaxed than he had ever seen her.
“My, my Grace, you look wonderful. I must go away more often. I told you that XTRA would help.”
“It’s not XTRA,” she snapped. “It’s Arnold.”
“Sorry, I forgot, Arnold. Where is it by the way?”
“He’ll be here in a moment,” said Grace. “He’s just preparing supper. Why don’t we go and sit at the table. I have a surprise for you.”
Grace led Bob to the table and clapped her hands. In an instance, the door opened and Arnold appeared pushing a trolley in front of him. But this was not the Arnold that Bob had left behind the previous week. Arnold was wearing a suit, a shirt and a tie. But these were a not just anybody’s clothes. They were Bob’s. His mouth dropped open.
“What on earth have you done to his face?” said Bob, staring at the rouged cheeks, the thick black eyebrows and the purple lips.
“I thought that we would make him look more human,” said Grace. “All that metal, I couldn’t get used to it. I hope you don’t mind. I borrowed some of your clothes.”
Bob stuttered somewhat but then relaxed as Arnold poured the drinks and proceeded to serve the most delicious meal. Prawn cocktail, a perfectly cooked, peppered steak with broccoli and new potatoes, rounded off with a crème bruléé torched at the table by Arnold with skill and dexterity.
They retired to the lounge and flopped on to the couch.
“I cannot believe what I have just seen,” said Bob. “That is just incredible. How did you do it, Grace? The people at work will not believe this when they see him.”
Grace stared at him. “You mean that you’re going to take him back.”
“Of course I am, Grace. Now he’s shown what he can do, we can turn him into anything that we want. Just think of the potential. We’ll be rich. Thank you Grace. Thank you so much.”
Bob leaned over, held her tightly and kissed her, forcing the tip of his tongue into her mouth. She could taste the remnants of the prawn mixed with the crème bruléé and wanted to be sick. His hand moved on to her breast.
“Stop it, Bob. Stop it. What on earth has got into you?”
“Will there be anything else you would like?” said the voice.
Bob leapt up and tumbled backwards, landing in front of the two large metal boots.
“No, nothing for now,” said Grace, pulling her dress back into shape and waving Arnold away.
Bob lifted himself up and knelt down before her.
“I’m really very sorry for that Grace. I don’t know what came over me. I could never have imagined that you would have changed so much in such a short time. I know that we have grown apart over the years, Grace, but I’m sure that we can get back on the right track again now.”
“What about Arnold?” she said.
“Oh, he’ll go back to the lab and become the prototype for a whole new generation of robots. Imagine it Grace! A world where the drudgery of life disappears! More time for you and me together. Just imagine that. ”
“ But, I’ve got so used to him.”
“I know how you must feel but he has to go back.”
“Yes, of course,” said Grace, eyeing Arnold.
“God, I’m tired,” said Bob, “I think I’ll pack it in now and go to bed.”
Bob turned and motioned to Arnold.
“Take my bags upstairs, Arnold?” he barked. Arnold nodded, picked up the suitcases and slowly mounted the stairs. Bob followed behind him. At the top, Bob stopped, turned and smiled at Grace.
“Don’t be too long, my dear,” he said.
Bob put his hand to his mouth and blew an imaginary kiss towards Grace. He closed his eyes momentarily and felt like he was flying, soaring above the clouds, like a bird in full flight.
His body tumbled forward, somersaulted and collapsed at Grace’s feet. It lay there motionless.
Arnold descended the stairs.
“Is there anything else you would like me to do for you, Grace?”
“No, that will be all for now,” said, Grace pressing the off button.
© Graham Walker 2012
Photo courtesy of Flickr user kb35.