At breakfast, his mind half on the car, Jack struggled with the kettle, but couldn’t make it work. The thing sputtered and fussed and wouldn’t come to the boil. Annoyed, Jack unplugged it and drank his tea tepid. And then he wished he hadn’t. You depended on machines, you couldn’t confront them, not like that.
Jack’s mobile was chattering, but he only half listened because Marjorie was going on about the fridge. Jack rather liked the fridge, it was the one device in the house he could count on, they’d often shared a beer. Perhaps Marjorie just wanted attention. Then she started on the toaster. Jack winced, the toaster wouldn’t take it – and sure enough, the toast came in burnt. He ate it anyway, not wanting to stir things up even more.
But where did that leave him? Jack wondered. Was he the dogsbody of the house? And what had got into Marjorie, anyway?
Then as he was saying goodbye to his wife, it came out.
“I don’t like you travelling alone with her,” Marjorie said in a small voice.
Jack groaned, he was late for the office as it was. “We’ve talked about this. There’s just no other way to get to work, you know that.”
Tears were welling into Marjorie’s eyes. “I know she’s young and smart,” she said, pathetically, “I know I can’t compete. I just feel so alone and helpless, Jack.”
“Darling, that’s absolute nonsense!” Jack protested. But it was ages before his wife had calmed down enough for him to leave the house. What a struggle, he thought to himself, and was it really the machines’ fault?
In the car Jack relaxed and let her do the driving. Then with a guilty start he remembered Marjorie’s concern and took charge himself, changing gear abruptly, accelerating, decelerating, turning off down a side street, just to show how detached he was. But the car seemed to enjoy the rough handling. She accommodated the twists and turns, purring, ‘Jack, Jack, Jack,’ as she sped along. And by the time he got to the office, Jack was feeling more involved than ever.
He was late, and his secretary was looking out for him anxiously. “There’s the meeting with Mr Andrews—” But Jack waved her away, his mobile had already planned the day, he couldn’t upset him. First up was some face time with his desktop.
The desktop was in a surly mood, it wouldn’t start, it just wouldn’t. Jack tapped the keys and shuffled the mouse without getting anywhere. He began to wish he was back in the car again; at least he was looked after there.
He called IT, and they sent a priest at once. This gentleman turned up in a cassock, and began with a couple of Hail Marys. Then he got out a worn copy of the Bible and started reading from the Book of Job — and to Jack’s surprise, this seemed to work. The monitor blinked on, wavered, then remained steady. The priest printed out a test prayer, got Jack to sign the service assessment form, and went off whistling.
The meeting with Andrews went well, the man was a decent sort, but on the way back Jack felt the lift judder and stop.
What should he do? Jack wondered. What did you do with a sulking lift? He shuffled his feet and hummed and finally tried to sing. Sometimes just sheer activity did it.
But the lift was deeply upset, these frivolities made no impression at all. It was heavy work for the poor thing, getting tramped on all day, no rest, no appreciation. “There, there,” Jack found himself saying. And whether it was that or just coincidence, the lift door finally opened and he was able to get out.
Over lunch in the cafeteria with Andrews, Jack shared his thoughts.
“You know, we all complain about the machines,” he said, “but we demand so much and we give so little. Would you treat your wife like that?”
Bad analogy. Jack hurried on, elaborating his theory about equality and respect.
Andrews, winding spaghetti onto his fork, had a theory of his own. According to him, it was war, and the machines were winning. Every concession… He shook his head and focused on his pasta.
“Oh, come on!” Jack retorted. But when he had finished he took care to give the vending machine in the corner a wide berth.
The afternoon went well, although Jack kept thinking about the drive home. And when the office cleaners were hoovering his room, his foot somehow got caught in the flex.
Back in the car, Jack unwound. The day hadn’t been bad at all, Andrews was just a worrier. And now the car sped along smoothly, playing his favourite music, almost driving herself. When they parked he remembered to slam the door for appearance’s sake. She would understand.
“I’m back,” he called when he got in the front door: “Yoo-hoo!”
Marjorie didn’t appear. Jack looked into the living room. No, she wasn’t there. His mobile was signalling, but he ignored it.
Perhaps she was asleep upstairs. He went up to the bedroom. Not there either.
Then, as he came back down, he saw his wife coming out of the kitchen.
“Hello!” he said in surprise. “Didn’t you hear me?”
“I guess not,” Marjorie said coolly. And as she passed, he felt a draught of cold air.
Puzzled, Jack went into the kitchen to get himself a beer. He opened the fridge — and started. It was empty. The cold air flowed out, enveloped him.
Reeling, Jack slammed the fridge door. “You!? With Marjorie!” He couldn’t believe it — treat the thing like a mate, and look what happened! My God! And couldn’t his mobile have said something?
The white metallic surface of the fridge shone back at him smugly.
Well, that was it, he was going to shut down his mobile and go for a long drive, just see if he wouldn’t.
Matthew Harrison is a writer and researcher living in Hong Kong. His published works include Queen’s Road Central and Other Stories and Benjamin Bunce.
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