‘‘Well, we’re here,’’ Zac informed Vivian as if she didn’t know what an Argos store looked like.
‘‘Oh, are we? she responded. ‘‘I never would’ve guessed we had reached an Argos store if we were standing outside a place that had the word, ‘ARGOS’ emblazoned across the building in big red letters. If you hadn’t told me, I’d be lost, so thanks for that.’’
‘‘What’s the matter with you?’’ Zac asked, sensing her frustration.
‘‘Well, you sound ‘umpy.’’
Vivian had good reason to feel ‘umpy’. She was forced into this even though she seemingly had no role in Zac’s relationship with Harriet. Not according to Harriet she didn’t. Harriet thought that Vivian and Zac were having an affair. As if Zac could pull that off. He wasn’t exactly an Italian builder. Although, had he lived during the 1990s, his curtained hair (a luscious brown with vague blonde streaks) could very well have got him the role of a window cleaner in a television advert for Coca Cola. He was a thirty-four year old man who had been in and out of education and employment since the age of sixteen whilst frittering away any talent he had on complacency and shyness. After both his parents died of despair at his becoming, he went to live with Harriet. She was high-up in a merchant bank and they met whilst he was working under her as a cleaner. He occasionally did this literally.
It was when he was caught performing his ‘cleaning duties’ that he lost this job. Surprisingly, the episode didn’t go down well with potential employers when browsing his Curriculum Vitae. Murder someone, that’s fine, you get a second chance, but God help one’s future employment credentials should they ever insert their pinky winky – with consent – into a woman’s slinky dinky. Harriet was a ruthless person, as fiery as her long and curly auburn hair. But she felt responsible for what happened to Zac so let him stay with her. He didn’t pay her money, but acted as a kind of slave to Harriet: cooking, cleaning and wiping the inside of her buttocks after she had consumed a curry. Even though he enjoyed the latter activity very much it was a situation that he wanted to escape from. If he did then he would have virtually nothing left for himself. Basically, Zac, the unemployed thirty-four year old with no means of support, was eating out of Harriet’s hands, particularly when there was only one plate in the house after Harriet had smashed them all in anger over him not washing them properly. He relied on her to provide him with food, warmth and his hobby of human bum cleaning.
In the early days of their courting (call it ‘‘courting’’ if it means doing it on the desk within five minutes of meeting each other), their relationship was new and fresh, but after two months of living together, Harriet was bored. His ‘easy-going’ nature didn’t challenge her and she was trying to find a way in which to throw him out with good reason. After six months, she eventually found that ‘good reason’. It wasn’t intentional though. Harriet would often be standing on the moving walkway that had recently been installed down her street on her way home from the bank at around 17:45. It was a routine that had become a thoughtless custom, but this day was different. As she was feeling faint at work she decided to leave early. It was 12:45.
This was unbeknown to Zac. He was rifling through photographs with his friend Vivian. When Harriet approached the door, she heard the laughing voices of Zac and that of a woman. Funnily enough, when hearing them, her thoughts didn’t consist of sentiments such as, ‘‘oh no, he’s with someone else,’’ or ‘‘he’s with someone else. I think I want to stab myself in the head with a screwdriver.’’ It was more a case of, ‘‘Yes! I can really get him for this!’’ and ‘‘finally, he’s cheated on me! I now have a valid enough reason to chuck him out of the house.’’ One might think that a little after the event, but not straight away like Harriet. She entered the front room where they were, with laughter still ringing in her ears.
‘‘So how long’s this been going on?’’ she asked.
‘‘For about half hour,’’ Zac replied with a smile.
‘‘Oh, so you admit you’re having an affair?!’’
Zac looked perplexed and half-laughed.
‘‘What? No, of course not! I meant that we’ve been looking at some photos for half hour.’’
‘‘Yes, really. Vivian’s an old friend and work colleague of mine. You met each other at that birthday party of hers that was thrown by her husband.’’
‘‘I don’t remember her.’’
‘‘That’s probably because you were busy licking some random bloke’s ear,’’ said Zac.
‘‘He had lovely ears. What else could I do? Anyway, if that’s the case, you saw all of what I was up to. But I don’t know what the pair of you have been doing before I got here.’’
‘‘Looking. At. Photographs.’’
‘‘You are at the moment,’’ said Harriet, ‘‘but what you got up to before or what you were planning to do later is what matters. If you hadn’t already, you were going to if I hadn’t got here, which is akin to being unfaithful.’’
‘‘But we weren’t going to do anything, not what you’re thinking anyway,’’ said a frustrated sounding Zac. ‘‘We were just looking at some photographs.’’
‘‘Why are people obsessed with living in the past looking at each other’s photographs? Beats me. Right, I forgive you, but in light of everything that I’ve done for you and what I think you’ve just done to me, I want some kind of reward for my forgiveness.’’
‘‘Of course, I’m very grateful to you for letting me lodge in your house, but…’’
‘‘You’re lucky I’m not getting rid of you outright,’’ Harriet interrupted.
‘‘I haven’t done anything though,’’ said Zac.
‘‘You could be taking me for a complete fool, so let me be the judge of that.’’
All the while, Vivian’s head was going back and forth as if she was watching a tennis match.
‘‘Here’s what I want you to do, both of you.’’
Zac and Vivian stared at each other in anticipation.
Harriet continued her dictatorial stance.
‘‘I want you both to get me something from my favourite store.’’
Zac’s facial expression plummeted.
‘‘Oh, here we go,’’ Zac sighed.
Vivian looked intrigued.
‘‘You know what it is,’’ Harriet said whilst looking at Zac. ‘‘It’s a very expensive one.’’
‘‘Let’s cut the crap,’’ Zac interjected. ‘‘It’s Argos isn’t it?’’
‘‘Ah, so you have taken in something I’ve told you in the past six months. I don’t care how you get it, buy or steal for all I care, although if you do purchase it, you won’t be getting a penny from me, you jobless twerp.’’
Zac went to say something but couldn’t muster the words.
‘‘Go on, you haven’t got long before it shuts,’’ Harriet summoned. ‘‘And you haven’t got long before you’re possibly without a home,’’ she said pointing to Zac.
He and Vivian walked out of the house.
‘‘Enjoy,’’ Harriet said as she slammed the door.
The condemned couple stood contemplating their fate for a minute outside the house. Going by the expressions on their faces one would have thought that they were on their way to a Concentration Camp. For people with little money, Argos seemed a scary place in 2075.
Zac and Vivian walked towards a hut at the end of Harriet’s road so they could teleport their way to the town centre. Stepping inside they made their way to the machine in the corner. A box popped up on its touch screen with a list of options to choose from including shops, restaurants and public toilets. Zac placed his finger on the one that said ‘shops’, then scrolled down the list and selected ‘Argos’. The machine asked them, ‘‘are you sure? Yes? No?’’ Zac chose ‘yes’. Soon, they were outside their destination. Zac had only been to Argos once since they had robots installed to carry out the chores that humans once did. They made him nervous even though the only robot he spoke to then was actually very warm and welcoming. Argos wasn’t what it used to be like – affordable items to the common man and woman. It had since taken over Harrods as the place to go for people with high brow tastes. A coffee flask would set one back £1,000. There was no way that Zac and Vivian could afford anything here.
‘‘Fuck Harriet, let’s just go home,’’ Vivian said to Zac.
‘‘You’re forgetting something,’’ said Zac, ‘‘I won’t have a home to go to if I don’t get her a gift. I’ll be out on the street with no money, food or anything if I don’t get her something. Harriet is as good as her word so there’s no point even trying to get round this. We’ll just have to get her something, whether it’s buying or stealing it. Those robots look static anyway. They probably won’t see or catch me if I stole an item.’’
‘‘Don’t be naïve,’’ countered Vivian, ‘‘I don’t know much about them, but I’m sure they’re programmed to detect someone stealing something.’’
Soon after she finished talking, the ‘friendly’ robot that Zac had seen the first time he visited came up from behind to greet them.
‘‘Welcome you beautiful sods,’’ he said in an upper crust accent reminiscent of the late comedian John Cleese. ‘‘Souls I meant, not ‘sods’ ha ha!’’
‘‘Hi,’’ Zac said with a bewildered look on his face.
‘‘Although ‘sods’ could be more appropriate,’’ the robot muttered to himself.
‘‘Pardon?’’ Zac enquired.
‘‘Nothing! Have you heard the news?’’ the robot said quickly and solemnly.
‘‘News. What news?’’
‘‘That singer Justin Bieber died.’’
‘‘Really?’’ said an open-mouthed Zac. ‘‘Wow! He was only 80!’’
‘‘I know,’’ the robot said sadly, ‘‘he had his whole life ahead of him. It just shows that you can’t take anything for granted in this world. You’ve got to enjoy life as much as you can.’’
Zac just nodded in agreement most probably thinking of his miserable existence with Harriet however much he enjoyed cleaning her posterior.
‘‘Anyway, enjoy your shopping,’’ the robot said as he skipped away.
Zac gave him a dubious look as the robot made off, but couldn’t help breaking out in a smile afterwards.
That smile was soon put to rest as suddenly, a loud bang penetrated his ears.
‘‘What was that?!’’ Vivian thoughtlessly asked a none-the-wiser Zac.
‘‘Dunno, a party popper, a firework…wouldn’t surprise me if they sold bombs in here. They sell everything!’’
They both walked towards the smoke and were shocked to see a man lying motionless on the floor by the counters. The smoke was pouring out of a hole on his forehead.
‘‘Oh my Darwin!’’ Zac cried. ‘‘What the hell happened?!’’
He was ignored as a robot with a sinister looking monobrow crouched down beside the dead man with a smoking hole in his head and stamped on his wrist a picture of an owl. It fitted in nicely next to the other two. Zac and Vivian weren’t perturbed about the man himself, just the fact that it could be them if they chose to go through with their plan. A wave of depression smothered their thoughts as they tried to recapture their breath. They knew that their task was much graver than they first realised.
‘‘How did this happen?!’’ asked a distressed Zac.
‘‘Sorry for the disturbance, sir,’’ said one of the robots calmly. ‘‘We just can’t have people not learning their lessons and keep stealing things. They got rid of the prison system because it didn’t work, so anyone who’s often causing trouble must be eradicated especially if it’s affecting other beings. Otherwise they never learn.’’
‘‘Why have you stamped three pictures of owls on his wrist?’’
‘‘Each owl represents the amount of times that he has offended. You get shot in the head on the third offence. Owls are a symbol of death you see,’’ informed the one eyebrowed robot.
Zac simply walked away back to Vivian who stood by a desk near the exit. She looked anxious and was acting fidgety.
‘‘Are you OK, Vivian?’’
‘‘Yeah, fine. I think I might leave though.’’
‘‘Er, because someone has just been killed!’’ came the reply.
‘‘Yeah, but we’ve still got to get this gift.’’
‘‘Well, you do.’’
‘‘You’re going to help me though, right?’’
‘‘I could probably afford something from here, you know,’’ said Vivian as she took a look around the place.
‘‘I have ways.’’
‘‘You have ‘ways’? What are you, a Bond villain?’’
‘‘Maybe I am,’’ replied Vivian whilst squinting her eyes.
Vivian focused her squinted eyes on Zac.
He smirked and said, ‘‘so what are you doing? Are you going to help me or not?’’
‘‘I could, but not now.’’
‘‘Because we could get killed. I’ll be able to buy something from here soon though.’’
‘‘What, have you saved up money or…?’’
‘‘No, but I’m expecting some in the next week.’’
‘‘I need some now,’’ emphasised Zac. ‘‘Where are you getting it from?’’
‘‘A friend? Who?’’
‘‘Look Zac, I need to tell you something.’’
Sensing the despondent tone of her voice, Zac responded with a very thoughtful ‘‘what’’?
‘‘We’ve been friends for a good few years now, right. And I hope you would understand if ever I did something wrong.’’
‘‘And you know I’ve been struggling for money recently.’’
‘‘Yes,’’ Zac said with a lingering tone to his voice.
‘‘You’re going to think I’m terrible for what I’ve done.’’
‘‘Why, what have you done?’’
‘‘Well…’’ Vivian paused, ‘‘that whole thing of Harriet coming home early and seeing me in the house was set up. She was supposed to catch us in bed, but you didn’t respond to my flirtation.’’
Zac paused and then smiled.
‘‘This is a joke, right?’’
Vivian shook her head. ‘‘It’s not I’m afraid. I gave Harriet my phone number at my party in case she wanted any cleaners at her work. She rang me the next day to say that there was some cleaning work going, but that she would pay me more money if I tried to get you to sleep with me. She said that this would provide her with a valid reason to throw you out the house without her seeming like a horrible person to other people. Me being inside the house was enough.’’
‘‘Well, people will find out that the pair of you are horrible people when I tell ‘em about this,’’ said Zac determinedly. ‘‘Why did you come here with me anyway?’’
‘‘I genuinely wanted to help you, but while I was here, I thought I would try and get a space suit from that new shop down the road, Top Alien, the one that replaced Topshop a couple of weeks ago. I haven’t been on holiday this year so I can afford it.’’
A naked man was rubbing the frontal side of his body against the glass of a window that Zac was peering out of, but not even this spectacle was enough to distract him away from thoughts of betrayal.
Vivian carried on.
‘‘Harriet loves Argos so much that, despite her feelings of revulsions whenever you enter her mind, she was willing to continue your stay at her house, which is why she has set you this task. Getting her a gift from here gives you a chance of redeeming yourself.’’
Zac put his head down.
‘‘I’m so sorry Zac,’’ Vivian croaked, ‘‘but I needed the money. I hope this doesn’t change the relationship between us.’’
‘‘Er, I think it will!’’
A silence overcame them as they stared blankly at the naked man still rubbing his body against the window. Just as Vivian was about to speak, Zac lifted his head.
‘‘You know what, just go, will you?’’ he bellowed.
Zac walked away as Vivian gazed at him with tears running down her cheeks. They stood in their positions for a moment. When Zac turned around again she was slowly making her way out. As he stared at the exit the robot who welcomed them in came into view watching Vivian walk out of the store in shock.
‘‘Sorry sir, I couldn’t help but overhear your conversation with that woman,’’ he told Zac.
Zac looked worried.
‘‘Oh no, I’m not bothered!’’ the robot reassured him. ‘‘I would like to help you.’’
‘‘Really? In what way?’’ Zac asked.
‘‘Well, I could always suck your cock,’’ the robot said inquisitively.
‘‘Erm, no, you’re all right for now.’’
‘‘Only joking,’’ the robot laughed.
‘‘Right, enough of this literal gay banter,’’ Zac said.
The robot continued to laugh.
Zac looked around the shop to see all the robots back in their positions, guarding the counters whilst being overly polite to anyone that walked by. It was a scene reminiscent of many a Christmas themed movie where everything was ‘normal’ and ‘happy’.
‘‘I’m having an epiphany, so I need to talk to someone right away. You’re here and you seem friendly, so can I discuss something with you?’’
‘‘Sure, fire away.’’
It wasn’t the perfect time to say such a thing in light of what happened to the man by the counter.
‘‘Right, you said you heard my conversation with Vivian, the woman who just walked out, yeah?’’
‘‘Yes, she was horrible.’’
‘‘She was, yes, but she’s made me come to my senses about my so-called lover Harriet. As I’ve just found out what a turd she really is.’’
Zac then went over the story of how Harriet and Vivian concocted a plan for him and the latter to be ‘caught in the act’, then for him to get Harriet a gift for her forgiveness, hence the reason why he was there.
‘‘Thinking about it, I’d rather be on the street than live with her. One thing that I have always had is dignity,’’ said Zac, the man who used to clean Harriet’s backside after she had eaten a curry. ‘‘I mean, I will be on the street now if I don’t buy her a gift. I have nothing.’’ Zac sat down on the floor.
‘‘You poor thing,’’ the robot said whilst stroking Zac’s hair.
‘‘But I can’t go back and live with her because if I did, I’d have to get something from here, which I can’t afford and that goes for money and my life. I’d have to steal it.’’
‘‘Hmm, you won’t get away with any funny business here,’’ the robot said in a long drawn out voice.
Zac’s eyes glanced at the robot’s fingers continuing to go through his hair and then onto his ears. He felt a strange sensation that he at first deemed was sick – some space version of bestiality, which disgusted him – but he couldn’t deny that it was giving him a semi-erect penis.
The robot leaned in towards Zac’s ear and whispered, ‘‘you can get away with ‘funny business’ at my flat though.’’
Zac wanted to relieve himself of his sexual tension, but this was not the way to do it. On the other hand, there was the small matter of finding a place to live. Maybe the robot could provide him with food, warmth, love and a job at Argos. He’d have to find someone else though to continue his hobby of bum wiping.
‘‘Come with me to my flat and I’ll sort you out, although I can’t get you a job here as you’re not a robot!’’ he chuckled, ‘‘PLUS…I quit!’’
Zac lifted his head so it was in line with the robot and embraced him with his lips. They walked out in hand in hand and, for the time being at least, left their former worlds behind.
Ricky Murray 26/09/12