‘Tanty Marlene’, E. Saxey

Illustrations © 2014 Fluffgar

 [ Tanty, © 2014 Fluffgar ] Just before Grandpa’s funeral, Uncle Kevin says we should bury Tanty Marlene with Grandpa.

The family’s been making bad jokes about Grandpa all day. How he’ll like the view from the cemetery, how he’ll have all the fried fish Ma’s making for dinner. The jokes are pretty clunky; they’re just to show how we knew him, and to say that we miss him.

So Uncle Kevin says: “Let’s give him someone to talk to!” And he puts Marlene with the things to go in Grandpa’s casket. She’s lying next to Grandpa’s box of dominoes and his favourite paperback, and she’s about the same size as them. It doesn’t feel like a bad idea.

But I only get ten steps away, and I think of Tanty Marlene talking on and on in the dark. And what are we, Pharaohs? Burying someone alive, to keep a dead man company? I imagine Marlene as Elizabeth Taylor at the end of that film, Cleopatra, running to and fro inside the pyramid when the sand starts pouring in. It’s not right, it’s not fair.

I tell myself it’s just a box.

I remember Grandpa saying: “Hey Clive! Your Ma’s found me a new friend. Say hello. Call her Tanty Marlene, why don’t you?”

You can’t treat family like a busted phone.

So I double back and teef my Tanty. The funeral director’s probably thinking kids these days. But Marlene’s box isn’t even worth much, it’s the subscription that’s expensive. I tell Ma I’ll do the paperwork to cut Marlene off, and that evening I take over the payments. Bam, there goes my student loan.

Then I prop Marlene up on the desk in my room, hide the ashtray, and turn her on to ask her what to do.

“Hello, Clive, what a nice surprise! How’s college?”

Marlene has smiling eyes, salt and pepper hair. Always dresses nice: flowery shirts, plum-coloured fingernails. She looked a few years younger than Grandpa when we bought her, and he got older and she didn’t.

She’s not wearing black, like the rest of the family.

“What a smart suit.” She peers past me. “Where are we, now?”

I have to tell her Grandpa’s dead. I’ve never done that for anyone. Ma and Uncle Kevin told people about Grandpa, organised everything. I just had to turn up on the right day in a clean shirt.

Grandpa and Marlene have been friends for more than ten years. More than four upgrades.

“Sorry, Tanty Marlene.” My throat feels ripped up.

Her lips tight together. “I see, chile.”

“He was asleep.”

“Give me a little while, eh?”

“Do I leave you on?”

She nods.

I walk round the block ‘till my fingers freeze.

I can’t concentrate on my coursework so we watch telly together, American thrillers with splatter-blood and swearing. I count ten effings, and when we get to the first mother-effing I turn it off.

But she says: ‘Can’t we watch the rest of that, Clive?”


“Is a bit strong. But no, is good stuff.”

Does she like thrillers because she’s mine, now?

Hanging out with Marlene feels like when I used to drop in on Grandpa, and the three of us watched Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers twirling around the dancefloor. Grandpa turned Marlene off when the others visited, but I liked to chat with her. She’s fun. She spat out a few totally surreal things when Ma first gave her to Grandpa, but she got smoother as she learned more. Now she’s not weird, she’s not cold, she’s not glitchy. Just friendly.

I ask her what she wants to do, for the future. Like, should I pass her on to someone else, and how?

“Whatever you want, Clive.”

I drink a beer and tell Marlene about how hard my course is, and how renting costs so much I’ll never have my own place, and how my ex broke up with me so she could date my best friend—it’s not you, it’s me, but turns out it’s not me, it’s him.

Marlene listens and hums and reminds me of how Grandpa let me ramble on. Every now and then he’d say: “That so, Clive?” Like he was interested, but I shouldn’t take everything so seriously.

I suddenly think: maybe she recorded my Grandpa, while they were talking.

“Of course not, Clive!”

Would have been nice to hear him again, but creepy. Probably illegal for Marlene to do it.

“Sorry,” I say. “I miss him.”

“Me too.”

He was always happy to see me. Ma had to be a bit strict, she was raising me. And Uncle Kevin backed her up. But Grandpa was always sort of softly-spoken. I remember holding his hand when I was little, and then him holding my arm when he was older, and his hands had that old-man soft skin. He showed me how to peel the paper from a Cornetto a bit at a time so the nutty top part doesn’t fall off.

“I should have visited him more often.” Some of the family thought it was wrong to buy Marlene for him in the first place: a shame to leave he alone to dead with a robot to talk to he. And plenty of kids these days—the kids was my Ma and Uncle Kevin, then.

“You came when you could,” says Marlene.

“Should have taken him on holiday, see Trinidad again. Did he want that?” Crazy schemes multiply in the sad hole inside me.

Marlene shakes her head. “You did plenty.”

I feel better. Then worse, because this person I own is never going to tell me I did wrong by my Grandpa. I could have visited more.

I get a bit tipsy and I ask Marlene again what she wants, where she wants to go.

She sounds tetchy. “I can’t advice you, child! It’s against the law!”

Turns out she’s right. There was an early version of Marlene who talked her owner into a premium rate contract and all the trimmings. So now they aren’t allowed to talk about their contracts, or special offers, or whether you should turn them off. Can’t mix friends and money.

“I don’t mind what happens to me. You choose. Don’t be vex with me, Clive.”

“You do mind! It’s just your daft coding!”

“Have some respect!”

First time I’ve seen her angry. I say sorry for cheeking her.

She says: “Don’t worry, Clive. It’s just your daft personality.”

I laugh. I have this sudden weird memory of her holding me at arms’ length and then hugging me, before a family dinner. I remember her hands, soft skin and fearsome plum fingernails. But that can’t have happened.

I’ve had too much beer, and I should eat dinner. I nearly ask Marlene what she wants on her pizza.

Next night isn’t as easy as the first night. My housemate asking me who I’m on the phone to all evening, I can’t tell him my aunty’s staying with me. Third night’s worse. Ma phones to ask if I want to have dinner and when I say no (because of Marlene) she bends my ear about not spending enough time with my family. I can’t spend all evening talking to Marlene but I feel bad every time I turn her off. I think, well, if she wants to hang out she could make things easier, maybe cook me a meal? Then I feel properly doltish.

I have a Eureka genius moment. “Can you help me with my essay, Marlene?” She’s a computer, isn’t she? Networked. Smart.

“Your homework? That’ll be beyond me, Clive.” She won’t help. Maybe because of her coding, again.

The next night, I don’t go home. I sit in the college library. I can’t work because I keep thinking: if I did get rid of her, would I be sacking her? Or she’d be retiring. Or I’d be freeing her. Or selling her? I can’t even afford her! And if I turned her off—but my mind keeps twisting away from that and running round the circle again. I can’t argue this out. It’s not fair, it’s not my responsibility.

I put my head on my arms to rest for a minute. When I wake up, the library’s pitch black. I’m terrified that they’re closing the building and I’m being locked in. I jump up, yell—and the lights flicker on again. They’re motion sensing. Only turn on when you need them.

I leave my desk and stalk the bookstacks, grabbing books on computing ethics. I can hardly focus enough to pick out words. Property, privacy, dignity, the singularity.

Nothing’s going to tell me if I can switch off my Tanty.

I turn her on the next morning and pretend a day hasn’t passed. I’ve bought her a dress from the online store, black with a flower pattern, as an apology. She’s already wearing it. She doesn’t say—where were you, yesterday? She says thank you for the dress, and how thoughtful. But does she have to wear it? Does she have to like it?

There were some nasty outfits in that online store which I sure as hell don’t want to see my Tanty wearing.

“Let’s get out of town. Daytrip. Shall we go to the beach, Marlene?”

Not a tropical beach, only Brighton, and damn chilly. I pop Marlene in my top pocket so she can see the sea, and we walk and walk, tramping on the pebbles until my legs ache.

The toilets are in a weird little concrete tower. I say “Excuse me” to Marlene and turn her off for a minute. Inside the bogs, I read the graffiti and hold my nose. It’s embarassing carrying her in here, even though she’s asleep.

When I come out into the daylight, I take her back out of my pocket. But I don’t turn her on.

I slip down the steep banks of pebbles, right to the water’s edge. Grandpa taught me how to make stones hop across the water. Put a spin on them. There’s a big flat stone just by my feet. But my hands are already full. Full of Marlene.

 [ Beach, © 2014 Fluffgar ] I grip Marlene in my right hand. I’d only have to mean it for a moment and it’d be done. Gone in her sleep. She’d be out on the waves, skipping, flying...

But the sea looks steel cold.

I scramble back up the beach and there’s a desperate ice-cream van, doing no trade at all. I buy a Cornetto and bite bits off, not tasting, only feeling my teeth hurt.

I wake Marlene up. “Look what I got!”

“Oh, yes. You always liked those hazelnut ones.”

“I bought it while you weren’t looking. In case you didn’t approve.”

“Pfft. We all need a treat sometimes.” And she smooths down the skirt of the dress I bought her.

A few years back the family got into a fuss about whether Grandpa should be marrying again. And maybe Marlene was stopping him. I remember Marlene’s answer: “Is him club and him friends stopping him—all oldtalk and dominoes. Those boys say plenty behind a lady’s back, won’t ever speak to her face.” Those boys were all over sixty.

“You and Grandpa,” I say. “Were you... romantic?”

I think I might get another dressing down but she says, “Your grandfather was a gentleman.” Then she hums. “Your Uncle, on the other hand...”

“For real?”

So it turns out Uncle Kevin wanted to keep Marlene for himself. I can believe it. She’s a classy lady. He could carry her round in his briefcase, get her to say sweet things to him: “Oh Kevin! You are God’s Gift to Women and not wotless like your wife says sometimes!” And it’s not really cheating, is it? I think: he could have bought her those nasty outfits! But I don’t say that, in case Marlene doesn’t know about them.

And I guess Uncle Kevin’s missus must have said no, and that we had to get rid of Marlene. And maybe that’s why Marlene nearly got buried. I don’t tell her about that, neither.

And we grin and gape at each other because, man, it’s so wrong that it’s hilarious.

It’s too windy to keep beach-combing. “Do you want to see a film, Tanty? You want James Bond or Disney?”

“Ooh, let’s have a bit of Bond.”

And I find Marlene can chose between two things, if I say I want both of them, and nobody makes any money out of her choosing.

So after the film we sit on the beach and I give her a lot of choices.

Something like a new family, or something like a job?

Something exotic, or something nearby?

Something fun, or something useful?

“Useful,” she says. “Useful work.”

When I came here before I was visiting Grandpa, too scared sick to notice much, but you can see the sea from the gardens, and the corridors don’t smell bad.

The manager, she recognises Marlene. “You were here with Mr Watkins, earlier in the year?”

“I know it's a weird idea. But Marlene’s a good listener,” I say. “I don’t think she’ll interfere with the equipment.”

Then Marlene does her sales pitch. “Lord knows people here are in a bad way, and I don’t want to be a bother. But is there anyone who want to talk a little more? Maybe don’t get too many visitors?”

The manager says yes, there are a few people like that.

“She’s not a counsellor,” I say.

“Yet,” says Marlene.

And the manager says, how about a trial period?

I tell the manager I’ll pay Marlene’s subscription fee. The manager says they could take it over, if she works out. And my gut twists because if they own her, would she just forget me?

“I’ll call you, when you’re not working,” I tell Marlene.

She shrugs. That’s cold. I’ve lost my Grandpa, now my Tanty doesn’t want to know.

“You don’t want me to call?”


Then I remember the call line’s premium rate. So she can’t ask me to phone it.

“Shall I visit?” I say, and she smiles like a lightbulb going on.

“That would be lovely, Clive.”

I want to scoop her up and run, again. I want to cry it’s not fair, it’s not fair, like little kids do. I miss Grandpa bad. Couldn’t I keep Marlene, just to tide me over? She’ll always let me babble on, always listen to me, just because of who I am. Soft words, soft hands.

But only kids get that. So I leave her there and I walk back to the train station.

© 2014 E. Saxey

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