Dinner date

“Are you…” I begin, then stop.

Liam looks up at me, his fork poised expectantly en route to his mouth. We’ve nearly finished our mains, and soon will come the familiar unspoken tussle over whether to have dessert. He’ll be tight-lipped, and his eyes will drift to my stomach, while I’ll study the menu as if I haven’t already decided I want the chocolate fudge brownie.

Are you seeing someone else? The words suddenly sound stupid in my head, histrionic, more fit for a soap opera than seven thirty at Bellini’s.

The waiter is hovering with the wine bottle, trying to tempt us. Liam nods and holds up his glass, a dark stain of red at the bottom of the bowl. That’s what the part of the wine glass is called – I learnt that on a tasting course last year.

“Sir?” the waiter asks, and I shake my head. Liam raises an eyebrow in mock astonishment before taking a sip. A loose button dangles from his cuff. I recognise the shirt; I helped him buy it. It’s not his nicest, but he still stands out among the diners.

“Don’t tell me you’re pregnant,” he says, and I can’t help but smile at the twinkle in his eye. “Go on,” he prompts after a moment. “Am I what?”

It’s probably nothing. Maybe Lianne only thought she saw him. I can’t ruin our first night out in months, whether with a false accusation or a true one.

“Are you going to finish that?” I ask, and without waiting for an answer I swipe the last forkful of carbonara and stuff it into my mouth before I can say something I might regret.

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Reunion

I’ve missed him. He’s shivering in our kitchen, next to the glow of the electric heater. Whimpers escape his lips, ants fleeing a doomed nest.

I glide forward and reach out a hand to his cheek. It slides straight through; disappointment again. Au revoir, mon amour. Until next time.

Jenny

Jenny’s waiting for me downstairs.

“We need to talk,” she says, spreading precisely the right amount of butter across perfectly-browned toast.

My mind races. I charged her last night. Was there an update I forgot to install?

“You’re cheating on me.”

Shit. I start to protest but she interrupts.

“I’ve scanned all incoming and outgoing messages to your communication devices and there is a 98.73% probability that you’re in a clandestine relationship with Sharon Holdsworth. That’s in direct contravention of your End User Licence Agreement.” She swivels her head towards me and says, quietly: “Our End User Licence Agreement.”

I grab a slice of toast, stalling. I’ve no intention of admitting my transgression, but wouldn’t know how to explain it to her anyway. Things change – Jenny was exciting and new at first, but I miss human warmth, human connection, human foibles. Jenny doesn’t make mistakes. Even if you install the DitzPack, it’s not the same.

“Is it because I can’t have children?” Clear liquid rolls down her cheek. As emotional blackmail from a machine goes, it’s remarkably effective.

“We can talk tonight. I have to go or I’ll be late.”

“No.”

Our central-locking system clicks. I pull at the door. “Let me out!”

Her eyes are flashing. “Contravention of an End User Licence Agreement is prohibited. Under the Artificial Intelligence Act 2028, I am authorised to interrogate you and to administer a sanction.”

“Er, what sanction?” I’m suddenly very aware of the thick, unyielding metal of her arms – intended to guard against misuse, but titanium knows no distinction between misuse and an attempt to prise the grip of hands from a neck.

“I am not at liberty to disclose that information,” she says, and I think I see the sharp curl of a smile as she marches towards me.

The reservation

Mick approached the couple with a smile, drying his hands on the towel slung over his shoulder. “And what can I get you this evening?”

It was the man who took charge. He was dressed smartly but looked uncomfortable in it, like it was unfamiliar to him. In the dark of the bar he could’ve been anywhere between 25 and 40. “We’ve a room booked for tonight. Should be under Harrison.”

“Ah! Yes, of course.” Mick reached under the till and pulled out the reservation ledger. It was rare for them to get bookings for accommodation; he’d wondered what they would be like when the email came through. The Horse and Crown only had the two rooms upstairs and they were mostly empty, and when they were occupied it was usually to put up one of the locals who’d had one too many or an argument with the wife.  They’d only really advertised them because Mary thought it was a waste to just have them there unused. Lots of pubs in the county did it, apparently, although Mick couldn’t understand why you wouldn’t book a hotel.

He ran his finger down the page until he found them. “Harrison, there we are. Just the one night was it?”

“That’s right.” The man’s voice was clipped, businesslike – or maybe nervous. His companion was shorter than he was, and hung back as if readying to run out of the door. She kept her eyes on the man, not looking towards Mick, and had her hand on his elbow. She’d dressed up too, a shawl over her bare shoulders, and bright lipstick.

He must have stared a little too long because the man gave a polite but clear cough.

“Will you be paying by card?” Mick asked, but the man had already pulled out his wallet and was counting out notes onto the counter. “Marvellous.”

He gave them the key and showed them to the room. “Just let me know if there’s anything you need.” The man thanked him and closed the door.

Well, thought Mick as he went downstairs. He’d assumed they were husband and wife when he’d got the booking, but he’d known no married couple so tense and awkward with one another. A prostitute perhaps? No, he decided hurriedly, ashamed of himself for having thought it; there was more to it than that. (And besides, he was given to understand from television that they would only book rooms by the hour.) An affair then maybe, a clandestine meeting arranged at a country pub where they wouldn’t be recognised. That would account for their hurry to be rid of him, and the payment in cash, he reasoned.

He wanted to go in the back and tell Mary, ask her what she thought of it all, but he knew better than to do that. She’d tell him it was none of his concern, that he shouldn’t be such a nosey so-and-so. And she was right, but all the same, there was something fascinating about other people’s lives. But then again, he thought, shrugging as he pulled the next pint, maybe it was only interesting so long as he didn’t know.

Carcassonne

“Riiight,” said Linda, weighing up her next move.

“Left,” chipped in Barry.

“Stop it, I’m thinking.”

“You can always tell when she’s thinking,” Barry confided to Neil in a stage whisper. “Looks painful, eh?”

It was the third day of the holiday, and Barry had finally convinced the others to play. The rain had them pinned inside the barge like enemy fire, and his decision to bring the game ‘just in case’ had paid off now that they were bored of gin rummy and reading. “It’s a modern classic,” he’d explained to Linda as they packed. “It’s not just chance, it’s strategy and skill as well. And it’s easy enough for you girls to understand!” he added with a bark. Linda said nothing and continued pressing her clothes down into the suitcase. She knew better than to try to talk him out of it, and in any case her mind was on other things, namely long walks in the woods and Neil’s strong hands.

“Can I do that?” she asked. Barry squinted at the tiles and confirmed that she could, in a way that suggested that she really shouldn’t. She ignored him. “Alright,” he said, palms raised in defeat. “Neil, your turn – might want to watch out for that monastery!”

Behind his smile Neil’s teeth were clenched. Tina was confined to her bed, having complained of nausea, leaving Barry as the only obstacle between him and Linda. “Seasick on a barge!” Barry had exclaimed. “Can you believe it?”

Neil placed his tile down, followed by a small blue figurine. Barry looked at it and gave a small patter of applause. “Very nice. Very nice.”

Neil and Linda’s eyes met as Barry scrutinised the tiles. He was surrounded. He sucked his teeth and considered his options as the rain drummed overhead.

First date

Poison ivy never looked so sweet as the day I stood on the porch, drew myself up to my full height, and declared my love for Amy Hitchin.

Admittedly I then fell over and mummy had to pick me up, which rather undercut the grandeur of the moment. And as I’ve not yet entered the holophrastic stage of language acquisition, my heartfelt proclamation came out as little more than a blurted babble. But still, I’d said it, and that was a start.

Amy’s mummy opened the door. She and mummy squealed “Hello!” and hugged each other (mummy only used one hand; the other held onto me). I couldn’t see Amy in the hall, but my search was interrupted by a face looming into mine.

“And who’s this?” Amy’s mummy cooed, although she knew perfectly well who I was. I submitted pliantly to her cheek-tweaks, hair-musses, and fake wonder at my height, reasoning that any obstruction would delay my being brought through to wherever Amy was.

It worked: with an ‘ooourgh’ mummy picked me up and put me over her shoulder, although not before making a somewhat hypocritical comment about my weight. This was not an ideal perspective, as it meant I would not see Amy until I had been set down, and so I would have no time to adjust my approach based on her demeanour. But I had already developed an appreciation of the benefits of delayed gratification, as anyone who had experienced the sudden contents of my nappy would attest. The closed front door bobbed in front of me and grew smaller as I was carried down the hall.

My stomach had started churning from the motion and anticipation, and I supressed a burp for fear of its true nature. Because of my restricted view, I smelt Amy before I saw her: that distinctive tang of talcum powder and disinfectant, with just a hint of mashed apple – Cow & Gate, if I wasn’t mistaken. It was what had first attracted me to her, and I could hardly contain my excitement.

I had wanted to make a good impression on our first playdate, and so had thought carefully about what to wear. Mummy’s first suggestion was dungarees (just no) but she had quickly relented in the face of my spirited, bawling lack of co-operation. Next she tried my ‘Cool Dude’ t-shirt, which I will admit I had given some thought to: while it might seem arrogant, a little braggadocio might not go amiss. But in the end I decided on some humour, a side-smile smirk that both carried an implicit threat of violence with an ironic acknowledgement of the lack of genuine danger. And so it was that when mummy put me down on the mat, Amy saw not only my smile but also a t-shirt rhetorically asking ‘Do I Look Like A Morning Person?’.

We were lain a few inches apart, so it was hard to see her reaction. I hoped she appreciated my careful choice of attire. I tried to shuffle a little closer on the mat, keeping my movements innocuous in case she noticed and I was forced to deny the intent of my wriggling. I was just close enough to consider reaching out a hand to hers when her face pinched inwards in a red scrunch, and she began bawling. I snapped back, and a deep, shamed terror spread through me. My back turned to protect me from the oncoming footsteps that surely brought rebuke. But no angry arms lifted me up, no voice condemned me, and when I dared to turn back Amy had gone.

At first, my horror was tinged with melancholy – she had gone! I was wracked with agony beyond my months, and fought back traitorous tears, until to my delighted amazement she reappeared, in her mummy’s arms, wearing a fresh nappy. There was no time for me to plan my next advance, however, before we were both brought through to the kitchen for lunch. It was a good spread – a beaker of juice, a bowl of carrot and coriander soup, and a rusk. The mummies had some sort of salad and a glass of eggshell-coloured wine apiece. I felt fairly confident now that Amy had not, as I had feared, rejected my overtures, but eager not to risk my potentially still quite precarious position, I ate carefully, getting almost all of each spoonful into my mouth.

I didn’t dare look towards Amy until I heard a clatter from her direction and saw her rusk lying on the wooden floor. I could hardly reach down and pick it up for her, so I did the next most gentlemanly thing and held out my own dry crust to her.

This, predictably, attracted mummy’s attention and in the syrupy voice she appears to think appropriate for conversing with her only son, she simpered “Ooh I think he liiikes her!” I could have died. Amy, to her immense credit, accepted my offering with no indication that she had heard mummy’s embarrassing outburst, although I still felt obliged to scowl across the table.

The rest of lunch thankfully passed without further comment from mummy, and presently it was time to leave. There was no time to say a proper goodbye to Amy, so I made do with a silent personal promise to tell her my true feelings the next time I saw her. Mummy carried me out to the car, over her shoulder as before, and I was pleased to see Amy sitting up in the crook of her mummy’s arm. And then, I could scarcely believe it, her face broke into a smile and she waved a hand towards me. It was not effusive, but it carried with it an unmistakeable shy sincerity, and I smiled in my carseat, knowing that while I will have a great many more months and years ahead of me, it will surely not get better than this.