CHRISTOPHER ROCHE - ROBOT MUMMY
Christopher Roche works in the telecommunications industry. He spends most nights and weekends writing fiction. He is supported by a loving and patient family that includes his wife, two sons and Nitro the Wonder Dog. They live outside Dallas, TX.
The clock on the mantlepiece went “tick-tock, tick-tock.” A dog down the lane barked twice. Mummy’s fork went, “scra-aaa-pe” on her plate, and Daddy made a sour face.
“Kitty, please,” he said, “you set my teeth on edge.”
We ate our supper quietly, and I listened to the tick-tock clock because there was nothing else to listen to. Mummy took care with her fork, and the dog had quieted. Just then, Mummy turned to the window, startled.
“Would you just listen to that damn dog? I do wish the Farmers would muzzle it, or bring it in-doors at night.”
I looked at Daddy and he gave me that face that meant I should not say anything, even though I wanted to.
After supper, I asked permission to be excused, and Mummy said, “Yes, baby. Give Mummy a kiss good-night.”
I coloured in some books a while, then turned out the light.
Somehow the darkness of my bedroom gave me super-hearing. I could turn my ear wherever I chose, and hear anything. But that’s an exaggeration. I could only hear inside my house, and sometimes, if I really concentrated, the neighbours'.
Mummy and Daddy had switched on the telly, and watched a news show. They liked the news shows. Maybe it gave them something to discuss: politics and culture and wars. But they did not talk, at least not while the program was on. Sometimes Mummy would say something like, “Oh, that Obama! What a nice face he has!”
Daddy would remind her that liberals could enjoy their moment in the sun, but the nonsense would not hold.
Daddy had a man that came each morning to drive him to his office in The City. Daddy worked in science, with the Anglo-German Biotechnology Institute, but he wore a grey suit and a tie to work, not a white lab coat. One of these days, he promised, he’d take me to his work. Mummy had worked for a while as well, where she removed other people from their jobs. It used to upset her; and then it didn’t, so she quit.
Tuesday nights Daddy went to the pub with his mates, and would return home late, take a shower to wash off the whiskey and tobacco smell, then come to my room to say prayers with me. Sometimes I did not want to say my prayers, so I pretended to be fast asleep. Daddy would sit on my bed, and say his prayers anyway.
That was how I learnt that Mummy was dying.
She died on a Saturday morning, in the summer-time, sitting by the swimming pool in her robe. Her head was covered turban-like with a towel, as if she’d been bathing, but it was to hide her baldness. Some men came to take Mummy. Daddy told me I should stay; the neighbours would look in on me, and I was to be a sturdy lad.
With Daddy away tending to Mummy, and the neighbours rattling about in the kitchen like a pair of raccoons, I went to find a place to cry. No place seemed suitable. Each room looked like an ad, or a posh hotel. The furniture was all clean and square and no dents were in the cushions. The curtains hung just so. Even the bric-a-brac on the table-tops and shelves were straight and polished. There was a horse head, and a brass scale, some old-timey books, and a magnifying glass. But we did not ride horses. Mummy and Daddy did not read old books, and as far as I knew, nobody in the house ever went around looking at things closely through a glass.
I was never, ever allowed to go into Daddy’s study in the basement. It was verboten, a German word he used, with a wink. Daddy trusted I would obey — he did not even lock the door — and I always had, 'til then anyway.
I crept down the stairs. I opened the door and poked my head in.
It was all ordinary. There was a desk, a chair, a computer and a rug. I sat on the chair and spun around in it until my head was dizzy. I tapped on the computer keys, with a pop tune in my head. I had my cry, but I will not say more. That’s private.
There was a stainless cupboard in the corner of the study that looked like the refrigerator in the kitchen, except it had four tall doors in the middle, two short ones along the top, and a giant one across the bottom with holes cut out of it. It hummed and clicked and made other noises, just like the machines in Mummy’s room — not the master that she used to sleep in with Daddy — but the one made up just for her when she got sick, and where she stayed for seven months, two weeks and four days.
I had to have a look. I picked a door to open. It flew, light and easy and with a clang, like my locker at school. Hanging on pegs were two motorcycle outfits, with helmets and boots and pants and jackets. This surprised me because Daddy and Mummy did not ride motorcycles. Everything was covered in thin blue lines, like veins. No, they weren’t like veins at all. They were like the lines on the circuit board of a computer that my mates and me had found in a bin and smashed to bits for fun.
I did not see Daddy very much for a while. He sort of disappeared, but I understood. He was “licking his wounds,” as Granny explained, and needed to busy himself with work and such. So, I did not mind that he spent so much time downstairs working. I was becoming quite a sturdy fellow after all.
He stopped going to the pub on Tuesdays, and we no longer said our prayers together. Daddy must've been quite cross with God for what He did to Mummy. I was cross too, but said my prayers anyway. It would not do to make God cross with me. Or Daddy. So I asked God every night to please be patient with us.
Months and months of this, and now I was losing patience with Daddy. I hoped that God held His patience, or we were done for.
Then, just like in stories, everything changed. Daddy whistled and sang around the house, and gave me lots of hugs and called me names like “Sport” and “Champ.” He asked me to sit with him in the living room, and I did so, on the edge of the sofa, careful not to touch the fabric with my hands.
“It’s been an ordeal, these past few weeks and months, what with your mum being gone and all,” he began.
Something wasn’t right and I was suddenly very frightened.
He sprang up and held out his hands for me. “Do you believe in miracles?”
I nodded. In truth, I hadn’t thought much about them. But a nod seemed proper. How would Daddy have proceeded if I had said no?
“Your mother is — well, how exactly do I say this? Your mother is — back. Don’t ask me how. She just is, and she’s coming home. Mummy is coming home!”
It was a miracle. My head spun, and my brains tumbling around and around in there, like the clothes in the dryer. Was it possible? Of course it had to have been. Daddy would never tell such a big lie. He had said not to ask how she had come back to life, and that was just fine with me. I worried that I would not like the answer.
Daddy and I danced. Daddy played pop songs from his phone through the stereo speakers. We laughed, held hands and danced into the night until we were exhausted and sweaty.
Mummy came back home on a Wednesday.
We were all so very happy! I could not stop hugging Mummy. I held on and on and squeezed. I never wanted to let her go. Then Daddy said Mummy was still frail and we should not over-do it.
“My baby,” she cooed, and kissed my hair.
For weeks, Daddy and Mummy held hands everywhere they went. They never, ever watched television after sending me to bed. Instead, I heard them talking. I felt silly, smiling all to myself while I lay in bed in the dark, listening.
“Remember that on June 20th, in 2011, we were on bicycles in the country. We took photos of the bluebells, and your tire went flat. Do say you remember it.”
“I remember it.”
“Remember that on December 25th, Christmas, 1999, we went to see a Tom Cruise film in the evening, and you wore the green coat I gave you. Do say you remember it.”
“I remember it.”
They talked for so long, I fell asleep with their voices in my ears.
By the time summer rolled back around, and Daddy rolled the tarp off the swimming pool, and days were hot and wet, things had settled down a little. Daddy no longer danced or whistled or called me “Champ” and “Sport.” He watched the news after my bedtime. Tuesdays were pub nights again.
I wondered if Daddy still believed in God. Surely so, after the miracle. Maybe he just lost the habit of saying his prayers. I no longer waited for him to join me when I said mine.
On such a Tuesday night, as I kneeled and prayed, there came a strange odor from somewhere far off. It smelled of burning flowers. I tiptoed down the stairs and the stink was even worse, coming from the kitchen. There was no fire on the stove. Mummy was perched on a barstool, smoking a cigarette. It was small, and she had it pinched between her fingers, like she was plucking a splinter. Her eyes were half closed, and she wore a goofy smile.
“Hey, baby” she said, but oddly, in slow motion. “Are you hungry? I’ll make us something to eat.”
I shook my head; even if I had been hungry earlier, Mummy’s stinky cigarette ruined my appetite.
“Well, I am starving,” she said.
The clock ticked and tocked. Mummy nodded her head, and answered, “Yeah,” really soft, and I was puzzled, because I hadn’t asked anything.
Daddy noticed Mummy’s smoking too, and he was not happy about it one bit. One morning I watched them quarreling. Daddy fussed at Mummy. He crossed his arms, and bowed his head and sometimes held his breath. Mummy called him a “right-angled twat,” and that made Daddy so mad he left the room. When he’d gone, Mummy flipped the bird to the empty spot where he’d stood.
There were many such quarrels after that. But the topper was when Mummy had gone out on a Friday night with her mates and stayed out until morning. She told Daddy her mobile got lost in a taxi, but then the pocket of her new tangerine jeans chirped out a merry ringtone. Much of what they said afterward made no sense, and it seemed like the quarrel would fizzle out, like so many others. But Mummy stood on her toes and stared directly into Daddy’s eyes, said something about her and her mates meeting up at a Labour rally, and he was free to join or not, she didn’t give a shit.
Later, I told Mummy I was hungry. She asked if I fancied a burger, which, of course, I did! She said she knew a spot in Tottenham whose burgers were “ridiculous.” She was right. The food was very good. And the spot was very lively with Indian and African and American music, and everyone shouting around us in foreign languages, and laughing out loud like nobody cared. What I couldn’t figure out was how Mummy would know about it. We’d never been to Tottenham. I had a feeling that if Daddy learnt we’d gone, he’d lose his temper.
Mummy was looking over the top of my head like there was someone behind me, but all that was there was a wall plastered with posters for bands and naughty words.
As if in a trance she said, “On April 16th, in 1983, we met in the back of a VW Bus. You had been on the road-side, and looked as if you hadn’t eaten in days, which was true. Fred picked you up though I protested. Gavin, sitting up front with Fred, said something dirty and I slapped the back of his head. I thought you were handsome and kind. We stood on the corner, pebbles in a stream of angry pedestrians, passing out flyers. People spat in our faces and called us every name in the book. Late in the night, we took discards from a rubbish bin behind the McDonald’s and feasted. Gavin finally shared the pot we knew he had all along. We got so very high. That was the night we met. Do say you remember.”
As far as I know, our Tottenham adventure remained Mummy’s and my secret. Nonetheless, Daddy’s mood darkened more and more. The odd part is, he no longer shouted, or tried to argue with Mummy. He sulked, like a child, like me. Except I had grown out of that phase, or so said Granny.
He spent most of his days, and many nights downstairs in his study. I crept down to sneak a look at what he might be doing, but the door was closed and locked. I put my ear to it. Daddy was talking out loud, but the words he used were all so scientific I cannot even mimic them without making me, and Daddy, sound dumb. Then there was a second voice, belonging to a man. Some parts of what they said I understood.
Daddy said, “Karl, what you’re suggesting is not just wrong, it’s monstrous.”
Then Karl said, “It worked with Kitty.”
“Did it? The essence particle was intact. The core cognition functions worked brilliantly. And the physical specimen is gorgeous. But the personality mapping went haywire. She's stunted. I just don’t know anymore. This is madness.”
“We knew something like this might happen. And now that it has, we adjust. You’ve over 1,500 hours in the suit. I say you're ready. Still, it's your call.”
“I won’t do it. I won’t subject my family to what we already went through. My God, what about my boy? He has to go through this twice? I won’t allow it.”
“Well then, what will you do?”
Two weeks after that, Daddy left home. Granny moved in to take care of Mummy and me, and never said a single kind word about Daddy. It upset me to hear her go on about all the ways that Daddy had ruined Mummy’s life.
She said, “He off and joined the system! And it sucked his soul out through his arsehole, and stuffed cash into the void from the other end.”
She was angry at Daddy, and might have been telling lies so that I would be on her side, but I did not want to choose sides.
Mummy was sad when Granny was around, but cheerful when she wasn’t. She took a regular job, cleaning up and running the register at Costa Coffee. She was learning to make the drinks and this made her very happy. Her Costa mates came around to the house from time to time. They were much younger than Mummy, and way younger than Granny, but everyone got on great. I even spied Granny smoking outside in the garden with two of Mummy’s friends.
I still missed Daddy terribly, and prayed every night, with my hands squeezing hard and my brain trying to shut out any other thoughts, so that God would bring him back, just as He had brought Mummy back from the dead.
It was Sunday morning, and Granny had gone to church but Mummy had to work at ten, so we stayed home. Mummy did not feel like cooking, so she asked if I minded just a bowl of Weetabix. Yuck. But okay.
Mummy watched me eat with a sort of dreamy look, the sort she got when she was remembering things. Not the way that Daddy used to help her remember, but the way it really was.
“Mummy,” I asked, “when did you and Daddy ride motorcycles?”
She laughed. “What?”
“I know I wasn’t allowed in Daddy’s study, but I snuck in there when — one day.”
She wagged her finger, tutted at me and winked. “Naughty boy.”
“I saw black leather motorcycle outfits, with squiggly lines. I didn’t know that you ever rode motorcycles.”
There was a long pause, and I stirred my cereal because I was nervous. My spoon clanged on the edge of the bowl. Mummy looked all around her, and leaned in.
“Those were not motorcycle suits, baby,” she whispered.
“What were they, then?”
“Those suits are for remembering.”
“Remembering what?” I asked.
“All that is worth remembering.”
“But how does it work?”
Mummy shrugged. “I don’t know.”
“He knows a bit more than I.”
“Alright then, what’s my favorite book?” I asked, just to give her a little test.
“Peter Pan, of course. I bought it for you at that booksellers on Southampton Row. It was such a cold and blustery day. A Monday. I was worried because of the chill in the air, and your little cough. The man who sold it to me was named Raoul. It said so on his name tag, and he wore a tight grey T shirt under blue suspenders. His glasses were on the top of his head.”
Then it was my turn to remember. Mummy went shopping in Bloomsbury, and brought me along. It was cold as ice, and I was making a scene. We ducked into a bookshop, where a lady was leading story-time with other kids, and I joined them on the carpet. Mummy stood behind, saying "hello" to some of the other mums. It was hot inside. Mummy unzipped her coat and removed her wool cap. Underneath was another cap. It was slick and black and covered in blue lines like computer circuits. The other mums stared and stared. Mummy blushed and told them it was for skiing; she sometimes wore it to keep her sensitive ears warm. I turned back and listened to the lady on the floor, as she read:
“…with that smile on his face and a drum beating within in. It was saying, ‘To die will be an awfully big adventure.’”
I had a smile on my face too, because it was a day that had started off dreadful, and turned out very good.
"Mummy," I said, “Is it worth remembering how to not quarrel with Daddy?”
She held my hand. “It's worth more to remember who I am. And it's worth more for Daddy to remember who he is.”
I took a mushy mouthful of the Weetabix, and chewed.
“Mummy?” I asked.
“Where has Daddy gone? Has he gone to hospital too, like you?”
“He’s there to remember.”
She smiled. “What a smart boy you are.”
“And will he remember who he is? Will Daddy get better?”
“I hope so, baby.”
“And then he’ll come home?”
The clock on the mantlepiece went, “tick-tock.” Once, twice. The dog down the lane barked once, twice. The doorbell rang.