You and Mum and Them

This week is Art Week at school. I’ve created all manner of stimuli and art activities for the Year 2 and Year 3 pupils to enjoy. One of the mums recommended the Robots Shed as a source of inspiration. So I included the link and then watched all the videos. And while I was joining in with today’s activities, which were mostly about gathering enough ideas for the rest of the week, I drew this picture and wrote these notes. And all of a sudden, there was Adam, in a shelter, alone except for a robot whose sole purpose was to care for him and protect him. The story speaks about how it feels to be in lockdown, and about what is most important: love and physical contact.

I wrote it in bursts of 240 characters, as if I were composing it in Twitter (which I was, to begin with). And it just carried on from there. The music in this video is from the film ‘I Robot’, which is based on one of the books that my dad gave me to read when I was far too young, but which I loved. The idea of a clockwork robot (more of a wind-up robot, as I am sure that the two hundred turns are necessary to generate the electricity necessary to power Adam’s friend) comes from Natasha Pulley’s writing, which I also love.

My hands are hard from turning the wheel a hundred times and then a hundred more every day. Once upon a time, my shoulders ached and the muscles in my arms burned when I tried to wind and tighten the spring. But I am older now. I’m stronger.

Before the birds begin to sing outside our shelter, my friend is coming to life again. I can hear the tiny parts of their calculating engine clicking and turning inside their head. I see the lights in their eyes first glow, then shine, as they turn to look at me. We stand up.

“Good morning Adam,” they say. We face each other and they raise their iron arms. The machinery in their chest, hidden deep behind their steel breastplate, whirrs and sends enough pressure through the pipes to make my friend’s arms wrap around me in a hug.

Firm and comforting. When I was younger, their arms could only just cradle my head. I am now almost as tall as they are, but I’m nothing like as broad and strong. We stay here for ages. Their arms hold me and mine rest on their backplate, which I think is made of brass. It is cold and shiny.

This is the best part of the day. Eventually, they let me go and their eyes look into mine. “You look hungry,” they say. “Let’s get you fed.” I nod. This is what keeps us together. I can’t go out to feed myself; they can’t survive without my hands to wind them up every morning.

My friend moves to the door of the shelter and pushes at it. The frost has sealed it shut, but they lean against it and the door gives way. Metal screams against metal. The half-light outside seems blue. The ground is glittering, all silver and jewels.

I try to look past my friend for any sign of life but the door closes behind them. I am safe, so long as I stay inside here. I turn back to the dark corner of the shelter and find the water container. I’m thirsty, so I swig greedy mouthfuls, cold, metal-tasting, making my head ache and my throat burn.

I hope they won’t be long. I’m hungry. I search around for anything left from yesterday, but there isn’t even a scrap. I suck at the soft end of a bone. There’s taste but nothing to fill my belly. I slump down onto the bed and pull the blankets over me. On the wall, I see you and mum.

Your faces are fading. I try not to touch you but the picture falls off every now and then and I forget to hold it by the edges when I put you back in your place. It’s all I have of you. They have to be my mum and dad for now, until you come and find me.

I know you will. When the lockdown ends and we can walk outdoors, you’ll open the shelter door and smile at me and reach out to me with your arms and hold me and never let go of me. That’s the story your picture tells me every night, only I have to do the talking for you.

The door screeches open. It’s bright outside. I must have gone back to sleep. How long, I don’t know. They walk in, carrying food for me. It’s mostly meat because we’re in the middle of winter and nothing much is growing. They’ve prepared and cooked it for me outside. It smells so good.

They put the food down on the box we use as a table, then give me a long look. “You okay?” they ask me. “Couldn’t be better,” I reply, trying to be happy for both of us. “I will stop now,” they say. That’s good, because it means they won’t wind down as fast. But it means I’m alone again.

They’re still here, of course, but the lights in their eyes dim and go out, and they stand still and silent, like a piece of furniture in the shelter. I haven’t got time to be sad. I’m too hungry. I tear at the hot meat, crunch through the charred edges and chew each mouthful slowly.

I like to take my time once I have the meat in my mouth, to make the most of the flavour. The nuts, roots and berries that they bring me don’t taste anything like the food that you used to make me. But the meat reminds me of home and you and mum, before the lockdown. Before you lost me.

Suddenly there’s scratching and clawing and snarling at the door. Nails and teeth trying to get in here. It’s a wild dog or a bear and I scream before I can stop myself. They come to life and spring at the door. It bursts open and sunlight floods in. I can see the dog’s hungry eyes, and its mouth.

They are quicker than the dog. Before it can come any closer, they grip hold of its back legs, lift it into the air, swing it round and throw it as far as they can. The dog hits the ground and breaks the sticks it lands on. It yelps in fear and runs off. I don’t think it will be back any time soon.

They come back in and shut the door. “You okay?” they say again. They weren’t made for talking much, so I have to do most of the conversation. “Yes, I’m fine,” I lie. I don’t want to show how scared I am. I finish the meat and suck at just one of the bones. They will boil the rest for soup for later.

They’re still and silent again. I need to go to the toilet, so I stand up and knock on their chest. “Excuse me,” I say, “may I go to the bathroom?” Just like you and mum taught me, only we don’t have a bathroom. There’s just a place outside, and they have to guard me while I use it.

It’s through a hatch at the back of the shelter. They go out of the front door and open the hatch for me. I go to the place, only a step or two from the shelter, and sit down. They look away. We all need our privacy. That’s what you used to say. And it’s no different here in the forest.

And then there’s hammering in the sky. The air is shaking and all the branches of the trees around us are blowing this way and that. Something is above us. The place where I’m sitting goes dark. I realise that it’s because the something has got in the way of the sun. A loudspeaker voice calls out.

“Adam?”

I know I shouldn’t be, but I am terrified. I crouch down to hide and then crawl back into the shelter. The hammering gets louder and the voice keeps calling my name. I don’t know what to do. I jump onto the bed, grab you and mum from the wall and hide under the blanket. This isn’t right.

They come back into the shelter and lean over me. I can see them through the holes in the blanket. “Don’t be scared,” they tell me, but I am. I have waited so long for someone to come and find me and now I’m hiding under an old blanket in a shelter. I start to cry. “Don’t be scared,” they say again.

The door of the shelter is pulled open and the room is full of people. They – not the people – my friend is still and silent again, standing up against the wall. One of the people tries to pull the blanket away. I won’t let him. I hold onto it and screech at him to go away. There are too many of them.

The one who pulled the blanket is a man. I can see now, though he is wearing a helmet with a piece of clear plastic across his face. He kneels down and lets go of the blanket, then he lifts the plastic up from his face. It’s you. It’s dad. You came. I can’t stop crying and I hold out my arms for you.

You’re holding me in your arms, not as tightly as they do. But you’re warm and you’re soft and I’m safe now. The other people are talking to each other loudly and one is talking into a radio. Everything is loud and too crowded. I want them to leave us alone. I tell you. You tell the people. The people leave.

We won’t be long, you tell me, we’re going home. The people who have come to rescue me have to make sure there is nothing dangerous left behind when we go. “What about them?” I ask you, looking at my friend against the wall. “It’s done its job,” you tell me. “It stays here now. It’s just junk.”

You’re carrying me outside now, to the helicopter that’s landed in the clearing beside the shelter. I’m screaming and clawing at you. We can’t just leave them. They saved my life. They fed me. They kept me safe until you came to find me. “There’s no room for it,” you tell me. “Then I’ll stay,” I say.

You shake your head and laugh, but you don’t stop walking to the helicopter. A woman takes me and looks in both my eyes. She holds her fingers to my neck, as if she is checking something. And then she pulls back my sleeve and wipes my arm with something cold. I feel a sharp prick and cry out.

You’ve strapped me into a seat and the helicopter is taking off. I can’t stay awake. It must have been that sharp prick. The helicopter tilts over. I look out of the window, down at the shelter, and I see them, looking up at me. I want to see someone else beside them, someone just like them. A friend.

We never come back to the shelter but I dream about them. All the time. I see them with their friend, taking turns to wind each other up, looking after each other, keeping the shelter safe and standing face to face each morning, so they can hold each other tightly, just like they did with me.

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