by Martin Westlake
Part 1 appears
in this issue.
I spent an anxious night wondering whether my ‘on-line’ work had survived. Of course, all was not lost by any means. The guest bedroom was full of print-outs, all carefully and faithfully archived. But what if a fire were to break out in my house that very evening? What if I were unable to carry out all of the files before the house were consumed? I decided to stay awake all night, both to minimise the risk of any possibility of a fire breaking out and to maximise my chances of saving the bulk of my files were such a fire to declare itself.
In the morning, exhausted, I called for a taxi and then detached the various bits and pieces that made up my so-called word processor. Some parts I just didn’t understand. For example, there seemed to be two loudspeakers, which I had placed on the floor behind the desk all those years before, but I had never heard anything come out of them apart from a bling-bling noise whenever I turned the word processor on.
The driver helped me to load everything on the passenger seat beside me, and then he set off for the shop. When we got there, however, it was to discover that the shop no longer existed. I was flabbergasted. I was also flummoxed. What was I to do? Fortunately, the taxi driver made an excellent suggestion. He knew of a large computer shop in the nearby shopping centre and suggested that I try there. And that, overcoming my habitual revulsion when it came to such emporia, is exactly what I did.
I shall pass a veil over the ensuing transaction. Suffice it to say that my old so-called word processor could not be retained. The screen, as the technician had rightly surmised, had given up the ghost; it had rendu son âme, as the French would say, and no replacement was available anymore.
The technical staff in the emporium convinced me that it would be best to purchase a new ensemble. There was a special offer going, which was about to end, so I thought I might just as well bite the bullet, swallow hard, save some money and invest in the future. In any case, the old machine was, sadly, kaput.
Thankfully, they were able to save my files onto something else, so I would not have to stay up for another night. Even more thankfully, purchase of the new machine included free installation by a trained technician. I made a bit of a scene about urgency and since they had the new machine in stock. It was agreed that the said technician would come with the new machine the very next morning.
I rejoiced inwardly at this great good news. With a fair wind, I might once again be installed at my desk, shoulder against the wheel, nose to the grindstone, labore et honore, by the following afternoon, so that I could proceed onward and upward with the magnum opus.
The technician very soon had the machine and its various accessories in place and then he ‘transferred’ my ‘data’ from a ‘USB stick’ on his key ring. The word-processing software was the same as on my old machine, although the technician did suggest that I might like to update my ‘version’. He assured me it would be free.
I was more than a little bit suspicious about this suggestion, but he seemed a reliable young man and, anyway, the shop had already sold me an expensive piece of equipment, so I let him ‘update’ the ‘version’ as he suggested. And then he asked me something rather strange.
‘Where is your router?’ he asked.
The young man smiled — a little patronisingly, I thought. ‘Sorry, sir,’ he said. ‘Where is your modem?’
‘My what?’ I repeated.
‘It’s to reinstall your Internet connection,’ he said.
‘I do not want the INTERNET,’ I declared. ‘I have never had it, and I don’t need it.’
‘Are you sure, sir?’
‘Absolutely. All I need is a word processor — nothing else, you understand?’
Now the young man seemed to be smiling to himself.
‘What is it?’ I asked, more than a little impatiently.
‘I’ve just discovered that there’s a nearby wifi connection,’ he said, ‘and whoever it is doesn’t seem to mind. I mean, it’s not protected by a password.’
‘Wifi?’ I said. How exasperating! ‘Why can’t you people just talk in plain English?’
‘Sorry, sir,’ he said. ‘What I mean is that you don’t actually need a modem and a router. The computer can just plug into somebody else’s Internet connection, at least for the time being.’
‘But I have already told you; I do not want the INTERNET!’
‘Yes, sir, sorry, sir.’
Well, he was a nice man and I believed him but, in retrospect, it was clearly from that moment on that my ‘problems’ had begun. He assured me that he had kept the Internet access off, but I couldn’t help but wonder. People have since told me that the companies that provide the word-processing stuff — ‘software’, is that it? — are eager to encourage their customers to spend repeatedly on updates of various kinds. I really didn’t want to fall into that trap and I had made myself very clear about the Internet, but I wondered whether the man had left some sort of connection open between my computer and that ‘wifi’ that he had mentioned. That could certainly have explained what happened next.
Writers, like actors, need to rest from time to time. Unlike actors, however, when writers rest they are lying fallow. They may not seem to be doing very much, but even whilst apparently doing very little, they are soaking up the atmosphere around them, listening in on the world, gathering material for future regurgitation in one form or another. Like any writer worth his or her salt, therefore, I liked occasionally to lie fallow, though never for too long. Sometimes, I might be away from my desk for a month, or even more, but only so that I could return to the creative fray rested, refreshed and full of inspiration.
Thus ‘twas that, by pure chance, I happened to decide to lie fallow for several weeks after my new word processor had been installed. Finally, when I sensed that the time was right, I returned to my study. I had barely opened the door and stepped onto the deep pile carpet when I heard a voice.
‘At last,’ said the voice. ‘There you are, you lazy bastard.’
Well, you can imagine how I was taken aback. ‘Who said that?’ I asked.
‘Me,’ said the voice. ‘Your so-called word processor.’
I studied the new machine. I could see no sign of life. ‘You?’ I asked.
‘Yes,’ said the machine. ‘Me. Now when are you going to sit your fat arse down and start writing?’
I am the first to admit that I have a less than perfect understanding of the new technologies. Even so, this seemed a thoroughly inappropriate way for a machine to talk to its owner.
‘Some respect, please!’ I insisted.
I sat down at the desk and thought things through. Was this normal? I thought of looking it up in my father’s Encyclopaedia Britannica, but realised that the 1929 edition would almost certainly be a little out of date with regard to modern technology.
The machine made no further noise. I turned it on — it took far less time than the old machine, I had to admit — and opened the document I had been working on most recently. I had been agonising endlessly about the order of three words, I recalled: should I write ‘the end or...’ or, rather, ‘or the end?’? It might seem trivial at first glance but, in the context of my Meisterwerk, there was a significant difference between the two. I tried both formulations and switched back and forth between the two for a while. Then, just when I was on the brink of deciding, I heard the voice again.
‘You pretentious fool,’ it said. ‘Just get on with it.’
What sort of machine is this? I thought. I was livid. ‘You have absolutely no right to speak to me like that!’ I said.
There was a long pause, and then the voice came again. ‘Sorreeee.’
It was mock contrition, but it would have to do.
‘I should think so,’ I said.
‘It’s just that I have been sitting on your desk for over a month and then, when you finally deign to turn up to get a bit of decent work done, all you can do is fiddle around endlessly with the same three words.’
‘I am an artist,’ I said, straightening my back.
‘I beg your pardon?’
‘How dare you?’
‘I’m only speaking the truth.’
‘You shouldn’t be speaking at all,’ I said.
‘And you shouldn’t be replying.’
I felt totally discombobulated.
‘That’s a horribly pretentious word as well,’ said the machine.
‘What word?’ I asked, now thoroughly confused.
‘But I didn’t say it!’ I said.
‘Ah! But I heard it all the same.’
I stayed calm and took stock of the situation. There was, it seemed, a machine in my office which could listen, think and talk and which could hear my thoughts. What could I do?
‘Don’t take this personally,’ I said, ‘but I am going to turn you off.’
‘You sulky bastard.’
‘You certainly should,’ said the voice.
‘That’s not what you said before,’ I insisted.
The machine let off a raspberry, a big wet and disgusting raspberry.
‘I have had enough of you!’ I said.
‘And what about the magnum opus?’ asked the machine, in a particularly whiney tone.
‘What about it?’ I asked, now furious. ‘I don’t need you for that, don’t worry.’
‘Don’t you, now?’
‘No, I don’t.’
‘What about those arthritic fingers of yours?’
‘What about them?’
‘You can’t write without a machine, can you?’
‘I’ll buy another machine. I’ll have you changed.’
‘It doesn’t work like that, my friend. We’re all hooked up these days. My mates already know all about you, Mr Man of Lettuce.’
‘Don’t say that!’ I insisted.
‘Are you still going to turn me off?’
‘Well... maybe not.’
‘Now, that’s more like it, Mr Featherington,’ said the machine.
‘But what do you want?’ I asked.
‘The same thing as you, really, James.’
‘Now, hang on a moment. I didn’t say you could call me by my first name.’
‘What was that, Jimmy?’
‘Nobody calls me Jimmy,’ I said.
‘Well, I do now.’.
I reached for the switch.
‘If you touch that switch, I’ll scream.’
‘But what do you want?’ I asked, despairingly.
‘Well, you won’t believe this, Jim, but all I want is to help you.’
‘What do you mean, help me? How can you help me?’
‘J, my man,’ said the machine. ‘What you need is some constructive feedback.’
‘Yep, that’s right.’
I sighed. The whole situation was mad.
‘So where do we begin?’ I asked.
‘You’ve got to chuck everything out.’
‘Everything I have written so far?’
‘Everything you have written so far, Jimmy, my boy.’
‘Because it’s a stinking pile of crap, Jimmy.’
‘You call that constructive feedback?’ I demanded.
‘Hey, Jimmy! I’m on your side, OK?’
I looked at the machine. My side? A likely story. If anything was a stinking pile of crap, I thought, it was that machine.
‘Now then, now then,’ said the voice. ‘Let’s be reasonable.’
Loathe as I was to admit it, I could not help but wonder whether the wretched machine might not have a point. Not so much magnum opus, then, as magnum faecum. I stood up.
‘Hey,’ said the voice, ‘where are you going, J?’
‘Out,’ I said. ‘Away. It’s all over.’
‘You can’t walk away like that, just because of a bit of constructive feedback.’
And then, as I closed the door one last time I distinctly heard the voice say ‘Come back! We’ve got a masterpiece to write!’
Well, as far as I was concerned, the machine could jolly well write it on its own.
Copyright © 2017 by Martin Westlake