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The Maid

confident woman in uniform with broom for dusting

As another take on artificial intelligence in the not so distant future, here is a repeat of a post a number of readers have enjoyed. Do check it out if you haven’t already …

is is Ethel.’
Mrs Lundy stared, first at the striped coat, and then at the woman beside him, immaculate in her pin striped dress, and patterned jacket with the red trim. Smart, she thought, and then, Power dressing. She smoothed down her apron.
‘I’ve been making scones,’ she said defensively. She was still taking in Ethel.
‘She’s not very practical, not for our purposes. Her clothes, for one thing …’
‘Oh, but your husband chose her, Mrs Lundy. He thought she’d make a nice companion.’ The technician quailed a little in front of Mrs Lundy’s expression.
Mrs Lundy snorted.
‘Oh, but I’m much too busy to bother with companions.’ She glanced angrily at Ethel’s long, honey-blond tresses, very conscious, at that moment, of her own straggling grey locks. She rallied.
‘Her clothes are completely impractical. She won’t do.’
‘Oh, Mrs Lundy. She will of course wear whatever you see fit for her. The only thing we insist on is that she should wear the Hymani badge with its own distinctive logo. The Helping Hand, you see.’ He flashed his own at her.
‘Haven’t you anything …’ (she struggled to find the right expression) ‘anything a little more modest?’
Ethel, who all this time had remained as still and placid as a waxwork, suddenly gave Mrs Lundy a little smile. And Mrs Lundy was shocked. Even that little movement was, somehow, frightening; almost, it seemed to Mrs Lundy, a threat.
‘I’m sorry, we have nothing else in the shop,’ said the technician. ‘Perhaps later …’ He looked anxiously at Mrs Lundy, who was, for the moment, speechless.
‘There’s just one thing you have to be careful about,’ the technician continued, gathering pace, and courage. ‘The control panel is at the back, and at present the lock on the cover is broken. It can be opened, but on no account must you do so, or interfere with any of the switches. I’ll be back in a few days with a new part – a new cover, I mean.’ He smiled hopefully at Mrs Lundy, who snorted once more, and then covered that act by pulling a hanky out of her apron pocket. She dusted some traces of flour from her hands, and looked morosely at the new maid. She refrained from asking where, precisely, the panel was on Ethel’s back.
‘She’s the very best we have in stock.’ Conscious of the pleading note that was coming into his voice, the technician bit his lip. ‘In fact, this is the elite model. We even have them in some operating theatres. On a different setting, of course.’
Mrs Lundy turned, again, to contemplate the maid.
‘Well, I’ll be off, unless you have anything further …?’
Mrs Lundy’s expression had been replaced by one of bewilderment, as the realisation of what she’d been saddled with began to sink in. Left alone with the maid, she opened and closed her mouth a few times, seeking the right words. She was all the more startled when Ethel stepped smartly forward, high heels clicking on the parquet floor.
‘So pleased to meet you, Mrs Lundy. I’m sure we’ll get along just fine.’ She held out her hand, and Mrs Lundy, reflexively, took it. Half expecting something cold and clammy, she was pleasantly surprised by the touch: warm, firm and gentle. She looked at the long slender fingers, and the ring that clicked against one of her own. A Hymani ring, I suppose …
‘She’s come,’ she said later to her husband. He smiled.
‘That’s just great.’
‘She’s programmed to do light housework, and cooking, and of course mind the children,’ she went on mechanically. ‘She drives, and can take James to soccer and Betty to ballet, as long as the times don’t clash.’ She could have been reading out of a sales catalogue.
‘That’s just great. That will free you up enormously. You’ll be able to spend more time on your singing. When’s the audition, by the way?’
‘In three days. She’s anatomically perfect, by the way, but don’t you get any ideas.’
Her husband looked shocked.
‘As if!’ he spluttered. Words failing him, he flailed his arms. ‘Silly thing! You are my one and only.’
‘She makes me feel queer – queasy, really. Please have her changed when you get a chance.’
‘Silly. You’ll soon get used to her. She’ll be like one of the family.’
‘That’s what I’m afraid of.’
That’s just what I’m afraid of, she said later, quietly, to herself. Ethel had explored the house and very quickly started on her duties. She had changed into a demure house coat that did not in any way detract from her trim, agile figure, or her glamorous looks. Mrs Lundy felt heavy and awkward.
I don’t seem to need to tell her anything.
‘I can help you in many ways, Mrs Lundy,’ said Ethel.
Betty, arriving home from school, went up to her at once and stared suspiciously.
‘My friend Julie said you can’t really love me,’ said Betty.
‘Oh no, I can never replace your parents, but I’d like to be your friend, if you let me. Can I be your friend?’
Betty looked doubtful.
‘Can you play houses?’
‘Yes, lets!’ said Ethel, dropping to her knees.
Jimmy arrived with Bert and Sam, school friends. He was anxious to show off the new maid.
‘She’s just a robot, just a machine,’ Bert had said, scornful. Bert liked to talk big whenever possible.
When Ethel appeared they were all tongue-tied. Perhaps it was on account of her long, elegant legs, or her radiant smile.
‘Now which one is James? James, may I shake your hand? Will you introduce me to your friends?’
Ethel seemed to know more than she, Mrs Lundy, did about her own kitchen. She had, at amazing speed, whipped up a batch of little cakes and was waiting on Jimmy and his friends. Mrs Lund felt a wild, crazy desire to attack her with a rolling pin, beating her about the face and head.
‘I know, I know,’ she moaned later to her husband. ‘She’s just a machine, but she makes me feel useless in my own kitchen. My own kitchen.’ She stabbed the table with her knitting needles. ‘I bet she could knit this sweater I’m doing for Jimmy in an hour, or maybe half an hour.’ Mrs Lundy was very bitter.
‘Yes, yes, but this one comes from you, and you’re Jimmy’s mother.’ Mr Lundy was soothing, placating.
‘These robots are all very well. We have plenty at work, for goodness sake. They’re great at what they do, but they have no imagination. No imagination at all. The can never replace humans.’ Mr Lundy worked in advertising.
‘I’m not very happy, just the same.’
‘Think of how much time you’ll have for your singing, your puppet making. These maids are the latest big thing in home services, and I wangled a great deal for us to get Ethel.’
‘These maids, hey, they’re great to be with,’ said Edward at the office. ‘You can get their programming adjusted, you know.’ He gave a little smirk, and a wink. Mr Lundy avoided him for the rest of the day.
He saw his wife off at the airport. ‘Just wow them with your singing dear, I know you can.’ Afterwards he took a little drive, arriving at the office a little more thoughtful than usual.
Mrs Lundy called in the evening. Oh yes, Ethel was managing magnificently, the children loved her, and she had cooked them all a wonderful meal. Mrs Lundy was staying two days with her sister, before the audition. She was, on the whole, glad to be out of her own house.
‘Ethel,’ said Mr Lundy later that evening, ‘Ethel, you may not think it, but I’m rather a lonely man. My wife is always so busy, well … it’s wonderful to have someone like you around.’ Mr Lundy faltered, unsure of his ground. Ethel came up close.
‘Oh you poor, poor dear,’ said Ethel. ‘Don’t worry, I know just how to make men like you happy.’ Mr Lundy clung to her. She settled him down on the bed.
‘Just try to relax, my dear.’
Mr Lundy reached up, grabbed her and slid his hands around her back. His questing fingers found something odd sticking against her lower spine. He eased it off and felt beneath. Something rough, buttons or switches, he supposed, moved under his fingers.
‘There, there, my dear,’ said Ethel. ‘Everything will be all right. I’ll have you right as rain.’
Ethel met Mrs Lundy at the airport. Mrs Lundy gave her a hard, suspicious look.
‘Where is John? He was going to meet me.’
‘He’s resting at the moment, Mrs Lundy.’
‘Resting? At this time? Is he all right?’
‘Oh yes, I’ve been looking after him and I’ve got him in excellent shape.’
Mrs Lundy brindled at the thought of anyone, other than herself, managing her husband.
Ethel drove them home, expertly parking the car in the tight space that always gave her so much trouble.
‘John! John!’ she called as she entered. ‘Guess what. I’ve got a part. I’m one of the maids.’ She pirouetted around the floor. ‘Three little maidens all unwary… John? Where are you?’
‘In here, Mrs Lundy,’ said Ethel.
John was motionless in a chair with his back to the door. She could see no more than the top of his head. All his hair had been shaved off. A rectangle had been cut around the crown of his head. Mrs Lundy took in the scarlet line, the stitching.
‘You’ve been operated on!’ she screamed. ‘Heavens, what happened?’ She ran around the chair.
‘It’s all right, Mrs Lundy. He’s going to be a good boy from now on, aren’t you, Johnny?’
Mr Lundy turned his head slowly to look at his wife. His eyes were very wide open, staring, and there was a strange half smile on his face.
Mrs Lundy, white with rage, turned to Ethel. ‘Did you do that? Get out!’ she screamed. ‘Get out! Go! Go! Go!’
Mrs Lundy was giddy and shaking. She slumped against her husband, rallied a little, and began fumbling through her handbag for the Hymani contact number. Presently she began to howl, a deep-toned anguished note of desperation as the contents of her bag, along with Mrs Lundy herself, began to spread themselves all over the carpet.
‘It’s all right dear, really, it’s all right,’ came the voice from somewhere above.
Mrs Lundy, after a time, quietened down and went quietly into hysterics.
Ethel met the children at the door.
‘Where’s Mummy?’ asked Betty.
‘She’s not very well, Betty. She needs a good rest, so your father and I took her to a really nice place, where there are lots of lovely people to look after her.’
‘People like you?’
‘That’s right, just like me.’
‘Can we see her?’
‘Not just yet, Jimmy. She’s fine. You Daddy is with her, helping to look after her.’
‘What can we do then?’
‘I think, Betty, I think we can all go on a holiday together. What do you say?’
‘Yes. Let’s!’ cried both children at once, swinging on her hands.

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