Christmas Eve. Every year it was the same. Leaving the office late then running round Hong Kong, trying to find a present for the boy. That’s how Larry ended up on Cat Street at nightfall, squinting in the dim lamplight of the last curio and bric-a-brac stall left open, hoping to find a toy unique enough to charm an eleven-year-old who already had everything money could buy.
‘Are you looking at me?’
The accent was pure New York, Martini mixed with gravel; reminding Larry of the cabbie who’d spun him round the Big Apple last time he took a bite.
The stallholder crossed his bare legs, turned a page of his racing guide and allowed a flicker of impatience to cross his brow. There was no point Larry asking him if he was the only one hearing voices.
‘You don’t like this one?’ the voice continued. ‘You’d rather I spoke like an angel or a princess or a high-class hooker? No problem. I can do all the accents. Last owner rewired my mimicry gland.’
Larry scanned the shelves, furry with dust, looking for an old tape recorder or radio that might be the source of the babbling. These places were a graveyard for obsolete technology; cables snaked around cherubic statuettes, brass candlesticks, gilt-framed mirrors and shit-bedecked birdcages. He let his tired eyes run along the faded spines of CDs and cassettes. Meanwhile the disembodied voice continued.
‘Twelve previous owners, eleven of them unspeakable bastards…’
The robot had just closed its tiny gold teeth when Larry found it. Doll-like with static whirlpool eyes, its silvery metal skin was exposed in patches through the peeling red and black of its old-fashioned robot livery. Sure, it was in need of a paint job, but wasn’t all this ‘50s retro stuff coming back into fashion?
The robot seemed to be examining Larry as he was examining it. When Larry rubbed his chin thoughtfully, the robot did the same. Then it stopped and began to swing its little legs, as if it had made up its mind for both of them.
‘Take me home?’ the robot asked.
The stallholder wanted 800 but took 500. Maybe the robot’s chattering was distracting him from his wagers.
‘It’s fine, I’ll walk,’ said the robot, answering for them.
Larry lifted the robot down from the shelf. There was no box. When he held it in mid-air, the small movements of its muscles and sinews and its unexpected heaviness reminded him of holding the boy years before; jogging the child in his arms before returning him to their helper, Noreen, on hearing the swish of the company limo outside.
‘Everything all right?’ the robot asked.
‘Good, you can put me down then.’
The robot was around two-and-a-half feet tall and showed itself capable of walking beside Larry as they made their way up towards Hollywood Road to find a cab. The streets were deserted and bathed in amber light. The neighbourhood smelled of incense, oranges and the beginnings of Christmas meals.
‘Do you have a name?’ Larry asked.
‘I can be whoever you want me to be, honey,’ said the robot, affecting a Texan drawl.
Larry stopped dead and turned to his companion.
‘Okay, metal face – let’s get one thing straight,’ he used the voice he reserved for reprobate employees. ‘You’re a gift for my eleven-year-old son. I want you to act accordingly. No funny business.’
‘Fine,’ the robot huffed. ‘Not a problem.’
They continued on in silence for a while before the automaton relented.
‘Pappy Bot’, he said through gritted teeth. ‘Kids like to call me Pappy Bot.’
Larry’s concerns about Pappy vanished when he saw how delighted his son was with his present the next day. Although Pappy remained testy once they were back at Larry’s palatial apartment, relaying the truism that ‘money can’t buy taste’, he was happy when his custodian gave up on the idea of wrapping him in shiny paper, and even happier while demolishing the brandy and slice of M&S Christmas cake his son had left out for Santa – ‘just in case’. When Larry’s son came into the lounge on Christmas morning, affecting coolness, he found Pappy snoozing on a sofa and couldn’t hide his excitement.
‘Hello, Samantha,’ said Pappy, bleary-eyed.
‘Sam,’ said Larry’s son. ‘My name’s Sam, but don’t stress it. I just know we’re going to have so much fun together.’
And they did. While Larry relaxed, sharing mince pies with Noreen and raising a glass of sherry in a brief, ironic toast to his ex-wife, Sam and Pappy raced around the apartment together. After a brief, chaotic game of rugby, Pappy demonstrated his skill at impersonations, using Sam’s tablet to access YouTube, through which he quickly learnt how to mimic CY Leung, Lady Gaga and Chewbacca.
‘You two enjoy today?’ asked Larry, as they sat down for Christmas dinner.
‘Totally,’ his son beamed. ‘Pappy is the best.’
His father tilted an eyebrow.
‘Sorry, dad,’ Sam corrected himself, grinning guiltily. ‘You’re the best.’
But the night didn’t pass altogether smoothly. Before dessert, Larry suggested they pull some crackers.
‘Neat!’ said Sam. ‘You’ll pull one with me, won’t you Pappy?’
‘Sure thing, kid.’
Larry noticed that in the ensuing tug-of-war, Pappy wasn’t afraid to employ the advantages he enjoyed as a well-designed machine. Just as Sam looked to be winning the contest, Pappy shifted gear, using an extra motor concealed in his tiny bicep to split the cracker and triumph.
‘What’ve you got, Pappy?’ Sam asked as the smoke cleared.
Pappy discarded the joke and looked greedily at the toy that had fallen into his lap: a small plastic fish.
‘Say, what kind of piece of crap crackers are these?’ he turned on Larry, malice in his whirlpool eyes. ‘Goddam skinflint.’
With that the robot hurled the fish towards their blinking Christmas tree. Larry stood, empowered by a rage he rarely let show.
‘Room,’ he bellowed at Pappy. ‘Now!’
In truth it was a marginal setback. The fact that Larry, even in his fury, had admitted that Pappy was to have his own room, showed that their robot houseguest was here for the long haul. The rest of the holidays passed peaceably enough. Larry returned to work and Sam, reluctantly, to school.
Sam had never been popular at school. He had been especially quiet and reserved since his mother left home. It was a concern that nagged at Larry during his more reflective moments. But that year, once Pappy had been introduced to his classmates, Sam’s popularity skyrocketed. Suddenly everyone wanted to be his friend, and to play with the ‘radical robot’.
‘Dad, can I have some money for the movies?’ became a regular refrain.
There were even academic benefits to Pappy’s presence. His last owner had been an eccentric art dealer and Pappy retained many facts about painting that Sam was able to use in a class project. There was no doubt the boy was inspired – energised – by the unwavering presence of his little friend. Often during tiresome meetings Larry would smile at the realisation that his son was finally finding himself in the world.
Months flew by, cooler weather arrived again and before they knew it another Christmas was on the horizon. One cold December day, Larry was in his office when his assistant buzzed to say he had an unexpected visitor.
‘Tell them I’m busy.’
‘He’s very insistent.’
‘This insistent,’ said Pappy, opening and closing the office door and hopping onto the chair opposite Larry’s.
Larry was momentarily stunned. Pappy took full advantage.
‘So, I was thinking…’ he began. ‘Coming up to Christmas again, ain’t it?’
‘What were you thinking of getting the boy, Samantha…?’
‘Whatever. Just answer the question.’
Larry swivelled on his chair, looked out at the view across the harbour.
‘I hadn’t really thought about it, Pappy.’
‘And why’s that?’
Pappy produced a pack of cigarettes and lit one.
‘You can’t smoke in…’
‘Shut up and answer the question,’ said Pappy.
All Larry could think about was how to remove the robot without causing further embarrassment. His mind went blank.
‘What was the question?’
The robot exhaled, shook his head.
‘I asked why you ain’t worried about getting the boy something special this year.’
‘Because I… I…’ Larry floundered.
‘Let me help you out,’ Pappy interrupted. ‘It’s because he loves his goddam robot so much that you could give him a dozen carrot sticks for Christmas and he wouldn’t give two hoots.’
Larry didn’t like it, but he saw that Pappy was right. Sam would want nothing more than to keep his Pappy Bot for another year. He groaned inwardly.
‘What do you want?’
‘I’ll tell you what I want,’ said Pappy, extinguishing his smoke in Larry’s in-tray. ‘I want a present of my own this year. And I don’t mean some crap out of a cracker. I want…a woman.’
Something in the way the robot said this, shuffling his tiny robot bot on the big leather chair momentarily unhinged Larry and he began to laugh. He couldn’t help it. Although he knew Pappy was serious, and his actions could have implications, he just kept on laughing and laughing.
‘A woman…’ he snorted tears through his nose. ‘My robot wants a woman.’
Pappy leapt off his chair, eyes whirling with emotion.
‘You’ll regret this,’ he shouted as he left the office. ‘You’ll regret this for the rest of your life!’
But Larry wasn’t going to be blackmailed. By Christmas Eve he had decided to decommission Pappy Bot and had persuaded his best IT whizz to help him do it. Still, he was oddly nervous as they entered his block and could only smile awkwardly at his employee as they travelled to the 26th floor.
‘Damn key, why won’t it…?’ he muttered as he tried to gain entry.
The apartment door opened a crack. It was on a heavy metal chain.
‘It’s no use, Larry,’ Larry recognised one of Pappy’s calmer voices. ‘We’ve changed the locks. You’re not welcome here anymore.’
‘What?’ Larry reeled backwards. ‘This is my home. Let me in you animatronic arsehole!’
‘No way,’ Pappy showed himself at the doorway. Larry sensed his son hovering in the background.
‘Sam?’ Larry called through. ‘Are you there, Sam?’
‘Sorry dad,’ came Sam’s voice, quiet but determined.
Larry turned to his IT guy who was creeping back towards the elevator.
‘Help me out,’ he pleaded. ‘We can smash the door down. This is my place. I have rights.’
But the man just smiled apologetically. It was time for his last throw of the dice.
‘Noreen,’ he shouted. ‘Come to the door, I beg you.’
In seconds the partially concealed face of their long-time helper appeared.
‘Please,’ he said to her, his voice quivering. ‘Stop this madness.’
She lowered her eyes and shook her head sadly. Pappy clarified the situation.
‘Noreen and I…’ he announced, ‘….are in love.‘
‘What?’ Larry spun round, looking for a reaction, but his colleague had disappeared. ‘In love?’ He wanted to laugh but couldn’t. ‘Well, let’s see what the police have to say about love.’
Larry stabbed the elevator call button. His own apartment. His own kid. This was ridiculous!
‘I would advise you not to call the police,’ came Pappy’s steady tones.
‘Why the hell not?’
‘Because then we will have to tell them about the abuse,’ Pappy explained.
‘Abuse?’ Larry swayed unsteadily.
‘The parental neglect,’ Pappy said, with pseudo-sorrow. ‘That has persisted for more than a decade.’
Abuse? Neglect? Did they really have a case? He stood there in a daze for several moments. Finally he staggered back towards the door. Warm light from within merged with delicious cooking smells. He listened carefully. From inside he heard the merry tinkle of a woman’s contented laughter and the sound of his son playing happily. Next year, Larry told himself, turning to leave, next year I’ll get him something even better…