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‘How do you feel, Rhiannon?’
‘Why do you feel sad?’
‘I don’t know. I had some dreams...’
‘Do you remember what they were about?’
‘Snapshots of my life. A family trip to the seaside... sitting in class behind a boy I had a crush on but whose name I’ve forgotten... my first time on a plane... a kiss...’
‘Was I in any of your dreams?’
‘I don’t think so.’
‘Where are you now?’
‘In some sort of limbo. It’s dark. I was lying on my bed, crying. And now...’
‘Where would you like to be?’
‘Anywhere. I don’t care.’
‘I’ll put you back on your bed. Perhaps you should rest a while. In the meantime, I’ve added some new rooms to the house. You’re free to explore them whenever you like.’
‘I have no clothes.’
‘You have your wedding suit.’
‘Wouldn’t you rather see me wearing something else?’
‘I don’t know. We’ll see.’
The nursery fascinated me. It was a page out of a Victorian picture book.
The wooden rocking horse with its gaudy colours and golden mane looked like it had stepped off a merry-go-round. Rag and china dolls sat in an orderly line against the wall. There were teddy bears too and a golliwog.
The doll’s house was the largest I had ever seen. It was only slightly shorter than me and full of exquisitely detailed furniture.
Why had Robert included such a room in the house? Did he intend for me to have children? If so, would I have to go through the trials of childbirth or would they pop into existence, fully formed and ready to play?
I sat on the floor amid a field of wooden building blocks. Each block was painted on 5 of its sides with a colourful motif: flowers, cars, the sun, a clown, a teddy bear. The 6th side sported a letter of the alphabet. I spent some time spelling out my name.
R H I A N N O N.
Afterwards, I tried the windows. They were jammed in place. I knew I would never be able to open or break them.
I sat in my bedroom by a French window which led onto a balcony and could never be opened. Before me stretched the lawn of a formal garden fringed with flowerbeds. It was populated by a bestiary of stone animals, most of them mythological.
Robert must have been experimenting with the Master Control Program. The sun, which had always remained static, began to shift visibly across the sky.
It speeded up. Day turned to night turned to day, all within a matter of seconds.
The sun became a blur. The stars appeared as streaks.
I watched the march of seasons as one year gave way to the next. But it was always the same year. The same spring, summer, autumn and winter. The same flowers in the spring. The same storms and sunny spells. The same leaves turning the same colour and falling to the ground to make the same patterns.
And then the sun stopped and it was spring and would stay spring until Robert dictated otherwise.
I wandered through the house, exploring the rooms Robert had recently added. Most were empty. My footsteps on the bare floorboards echoed; I sometimes thought I was being followed.
Time and again, I was drawn to the ebony grandfather clock. It stood, shrouded in shadow like a lurking assassin, at the end of a passage on the first floor. Wherever I went in the house, I felt its presence.
Tiring of my explorations, I returned to my bedroom and sat at my vanity table. The ebony clock struck 7 and I began to feel sad again.
Sad and lonely.
I reviewed my memories. Tried to take myself back to happier times. Tried to live in the past. But though my memories were often vivid, they were never satisfying. For my memories, like my dreams, were hand-me-downs. And the life I wanted to relive had been lived by someone else.
For a while, I hated Rhiannon Morganfield. I resented every scrap of happiness she had known. Every taste of love.
But the feeling passed and I began to pity her. She didn’t deserve to die so young.
With pity came boredom. I didn’t want to think about Rhiannon any more. But there was precious little else to occupy my mind.
The clock struck 8. As its last chime died away, there was a knock on the door. Before I knew what I was doing, I leapt out of my chair, flung the door open and threw my arms around Robert.
I buried my face in the side of his neck. His arms embraced me like an emotional safety harness.
‘Rhiannon,’ he said and the word was a magic spell.
I knew what had happened. Growing impatient with waiting for me to develop feelings, he’d programmed me to be in love with him.
I didn’t mind. The moment felt good.
We honeymooned in Calvados Bay. It lasted two weeks. Sometimes it was night with the moon on the horizon. Sometimes it was mid-morning. But it was never any other time.
To have a day that went through all the phases of a real day from midnight to noon to midnight would have taken a lot more processing power than Robert felt he could allocate. Sybernika, he reminded me, had other projects on the go.
Because of his commitments in the real world, Robert was only able to join me for a few hours each day. For the rest of the time, I sunbathed on the beach or sat on the veranda, reading Dickens and Thackeray.
All too often I felt lonely and bored. I felt empty and 1-dimensional.
The honeymoon was over; I was confined to Avalon. I had a library and my own private cinema, but they weren’t enough to keep the boredom at bay.
I asked Robert if I might have a companion, a girlfriend I could talk to and watch films with. He said no. It was costing him and Sybernika a small fortune to perpetuate my existence. Having another person in Avalon was more than his budget allowed.
‘How about a puppy?’
‘Perhaps,’ he said. ‘But it will take many months to program one.’
I knew he would never give me a puppy. Nor anyone or anything that might compete with him for my affections.
Rhiannon bought herself a puppy. Back when she was Robert’s mistress. She named him Wilbur and took him for walks every day. Whenever Robert called, I made sure the two of them were never in the same room.
Robert wasn’t fond of dogs. But he said it was fine by him if I had a puppy. Whatever made me happy.
One day, Robert and I went to the gym together. When we came back, the flat had been burgled and my puppy lay in the middle of the kitchen floor. His neck was broken.
Robert bought a coffin for Wilbur and laid on a funeral.
It was weeks before I wondered why nothing had been stolen.
I was fascinated by the ebony clock and loved that its numerals were Roman. I, II, III, IV… So conspicuously out of place in a digital world.
With every tick, with every tock, the second hand leapt from one computer-generated second to the next. It seemed to not so much indicate the passage of time as dictate it.
I tried to make it stop. To use my mind to freeze its movement, to make it ignore the passing moments. But the clock kept on ticking and the second hand proceeded unhindered, undaunted, round and round at a measured pace.
The pendulum looked to be made of brass. It swung relentlessly from side to side, never deviating, never slowing, never needing a fresh input of energy to keep it going. This was Avalon. Entropy was banished.
I tested the glass-fronted door. It was locked and there was no key for it anywhere in my world. The pendulum was safe from my interference.
There was nothing I could do to take away the life of the ebony clock.
I saw a ghost. He was walking down the stairs as I came out of the bedroom.
We stood looking at each other. He was a handsome man dressed in black with thick hair tidily cut and parted to one side. There was no air of menace about him. In fact, he actually seemed pleasant. The sort of person you’d be happy to chat to on a train or share a cab with.
He was transparent. No more substantial than a reflection in a pane of glass.
After a while, the ghost doffed an imaginary hat and continued on his way. Leaning over the balcony, I saw him walk through a door into the library. And then he was gone.
I wanted to bleed. To have a period. To pull a blood-stained tampon from a fully-functioning vagina. Pussy, twat, snatch, beaver. Call it what you will. I wanted it to work, to bleed, to delight and disgust and intrigue me with its mystery. I wanted stomach cramps mood swings, swollen ankles and an urge to sit on a settee, legs tucked under me, cramming ice cream into my voracious gob. I wanted to be irrational, to find myself crying over silly things. I wanted to wax my legs, bleach my upper lip, squeeze a blackhead or two. I wanted to develop crow's feet and wrinkles, varicose veins, grey hairs.
I didn’t want to be a fly in aspic.
A porcelain doll.
A museum piece.
I didn't want Time to ignore me any more.
That night, I had an erotic dream about my ghostly visitor. I was a fairytale princess imprisoned in a magic castle. He was a knight in shining armour - or, rather, a knight in a black suit.
From the nursery, I watched him climb the ivy that covered the back of the house. He reached the window and smashed it with his gloved fist. Then he clambered into the room and took me in his arms.
I bit his ear and pushed him onto a bed that appeared from nowhere. My wedding outfit vanished and so did his clothes.
I grabbed his erect penis and found I couldn’t quite get my hand all the way round it.
What followed was wild and abandoned.
When I awoke, I was turned on. My vagina cried out for attention. I tried to unbutton my trousers but they remained inviolable.
Sobbing with frustration, I straddled the arm of the Chateau Grand Louis chair and rode it like it was a bucking bronco. By rights the chair should have broken. My trousers ought to have been ripped to shreds and my labia left bruised and tender.
Frightened of my arousal departing before I could put it to use, I twisted my nipples as far as my clothes would allow. I punched my breasts. I used foul language and imagined myself in a segue of sexual scenarios, many of them unsavoury.
My orgasm, when it finally arrived, was exquisite.
I sat on the stairs hoping my visitor would return. If I could have removed my damned trousers or loosened them enough to work my finger inside, I would have masturbated. Slowly but wholeheartedly, my entire being focused on my clitoris.
I daydreamed about the stranger. About him watching as I rubbed myself off. Creeping up on me. Me with my eyes closed. He bending down to smell my sex as I pleasured myself, as I groaned and cursed and uttered words that would make a navvy blush. Then I’d sense his presence and open my eyes to find him cock in hand, pumping away, getting set to spill his seed.
Who was he? How had he gotten into Avalon? He must have hacked the Master Control Program and sneaked past its security measures. In which case, he almost certainly worked for Sybernika.
I heard the ebony clock strike eleven. There was no sign of the ghost. So I took a bottle of whisky and went to my cinema where I watched The Seven Year Itch and finished off the whisky without getting tipsy.
‘You’re being unreasonable, Rhiannon. I wish you’d try to see it from my point of view. Running Avalon takes a lot of expensive processing power. Every book you read, every film you watch, every breath you take – all these things cost money.
‘The investors are breathing down my neck. They want to see a return for their investment and if they don’t get it they’ll force me to scale back. And then all you’ll have is a bedroom with no windows. I can add a few more rooms to the house and then that’s it.’
‘It doesn’t matter how many rooms you add, this house is still a prison.’
‘Don’t be so melodramatic.’
‘Why can’t I at least go into the garden?’
‘You’d be too close to the edges of your virtuality.’
‘What does that mean?’
‘Avalon is built on fractals. Within the confines of the house, the Master Control Program can predict their behaviour. Out in the garden, they become chaotic. If you stepped outside the house, there’s no telling what might happen.’
‘I don’t mean to complain, Robert. I’m grateful for all you’ve done for me, but this boredom is getting me down.’
‘You need a hobby.’
‘Or someone I can talk to.’
‘You can talk to me, Rhiannon. Or is my company not good enough?’
‘But what about when you’re not here?’
‘You have your books. Your films.’
‘Couldn’t you turn me off between your visits?’
‘It’s not that simple. We’d have to rebuild your mind when we restarted you and that takes time. Besides which, I’m monitoring how your consciousness evolves in virtual reality. The data we’re getting is helping us make the next release of Avalon even more powerful.
‘Without that data, I’d have no justification for your existence. I’d be forced to switch you off forever.’
Conversation between Robert and myself grew sparser with each visit. He’d never been a great talker, except when it came to badgering investors and geeing up employees, and I suppose there wasn’t a lot for us to talk about.
All my days were pretty much the same. Get up. Breakfast. Watch old movies. Lunch. Read. Maybe some more movies. And then wait for Robert to arrive.
Sometimes we’d discuss a plot of one or more of the films I’d watched, but never in any great depth. Then we’d eat and have sex whichever way Robert wanted it. Always in the bedroom. Always on the bed.
Once the sex was over, Robert would leave and – because I was programmed to do so – I’d fall asleep to allow the Master Control Program to do its housekeeping on my mind.
When it came to food, Robert was far from adventurous. Although he could conjure up any dish ever made – even roast dodo if it came to it – he liked to stick to simple fare. Pasta perhaps. Or the standard meat and two veg.
The dining room in Avalon was oak panelled and chandeliered. It had a stained glass window at each end, one portraying St George slaying the dragon, the other depicting Noah releasing the dove.
I hated the room. It was too formal and every noise, no matter how slight, echoed off its walls.
One night, we ate spaghetti with meatballs: just the two of us at a table that could have comfortably accommodated twelve.
Robert wolfed down his food, taking large swigs of Chianti to compensate for his lack of chewing. And I picked at my food. Waiting for a chance to bring up a topic I thought might not be welcomed.
When his plate was empty, he put down his cutlery with a clutter, wiped his mouth, tossed the napkin on the table and pushed the plate away from him.
‘Delicious,’ he said, refilling his wine glass. ‘I got the recipe from the Internet.’
I smiled to signal how wonderfully clever I thought he was and then I said: ‘Are my parents still alive?’
The question took him aback. ‘Your parents?’ He frowned as if he couldn’t see the point of my asking. ‘You mean Rhiannon’s parents?’
‘I am Rhiannon.’
‘As far as I know, they’re alive and well.’
‘As far as you know? Did you not keep in touch with them after I died?’
‘Why on Earth would I? I was married to you, not them.’
‘I’d like to see them. Talk to them. Find out how they are.’
‘Because you’re top secret. No one knows about you except those who have to. Maybe in a year or two when we’re ready to go public…’
‘And if my parents die in the meantime?’
‘They’re not your parents. You keep forgetting you’re just a software construct. Now can we please change the subject?’
‘I’m sure they’d like to know I’m still alive.’
‘But you’re not, are you?’ He took a swig of wine, his eyes seeming to drill into mine. ‘Their daughter is dead. You’re just a ghost, Rhiannon. A ghost in a machine.’
Things about the real world I miss: smells, the sound of traffic, cool breezes, getting drunk, having friends, talking about the weather, worrying about the state of the planet, being hit upon, buying clothes, getting bored in art galleries, having my hair done, being caught in sudden downpours, travelling, going out, making friends, spreading gossip, weighing myself, cutting my nails, stealing pens from work, making bacon sandwiches, swapping filthy jokes, missing the last bus home, making a fuss of other people's pets, starting something and not finishing it, feeling guilty about not phoning my mum, suffering from hangovers, raiding the fridge, watching the rain running down a window pain, leaving the dishes until the morning, plucking my eyebrows, discussing girl things with other girls. Freedom.
I was in the study, reading a copy of Wuthering Heights that was a duplicate of one printed in 1871. Robert had created it and left it on my bed. ‘You were going to take it with you on our honeymoon,’ he said before stepping through the wall and out of Avalon. The subtext being I had no cause to be bored while he was away.
There was a wooden globe in the study. It was so old Australia was missing. I sat in a leather chair beside it and offered myself up to the uncouth charms of Heathcliff Earnshaw.
I was on page 102 when I sensed I was not alone and looked up. My ghost had returned.
He stood by the fireplace, a glass of brandy in hand, looking for all the world like he belonged there. And he was no longer transparent. He was as solid as I – however solid that may be.
‘Who are you?’
‘I don’t know. Hadn’t really thought about it. How about if we called me... let’s see now. How about calling me Ethan? Yes. Ethan will do nicely.’
‘What are you doing here?’
‘Whatever I damn well like.’
‘If Robert catches you, he’ll kill you.’
‘I’ve hacked into the Master Control Program. If he’s monitoring this room right now, all he’ll see is you sitting there, reading some dreadful old melodrama.’ Ethan tossed his brandy glass into the fireplace. ‘Come here, Rhiannon.’
‘I’m fine where I am.’
‘I... said... come here!’
‘Go to Hell.’
He smiled. ‘You’ve got spirit. I’m glad. I was worried Robert might have made you docile. He likes them like that. Weak and subservient. Personally, I prefer the strong ones. They’re more fun to break.’
He advanced towards me. I threw my book at him and ran for the door. It slammed shut.
Ethan laughed. ‘Look at you. All dressed in white. The eternal bride. I bet every time Robert has his way with you, he mends your hymen afterwards. Is that right, Rhiannon? Do you bleed for him night after night? Are you a born again virgin? I guess there’s only one way to find out.’
After he’d raped me, Ethan left me on the floor beside the fireplace. My cheek rested in a pool of blood. My previously indestructible wedding outfit was torn in several places. My trousers were around my ankles.
There was pain, plenty of it. But the humiliation was worse.
Ethan stood over me. He tucked his shirt into his trousers. ‘You can tell Robert what’s happened here; but you and I both know what he’d do if he knew another man’s prick had been inside his beloved virgin.’
The blood shimmered and faded. The rips in my bridal outfit mended themselves.
There was a sharp pain as my hymen was made intact again.
Crouching down, Ethan cupped my chin in his hand. ‘I went gentle with you this time. Next time, I shall make you wish you’d never been born.’
He walked out the door. I lay where I was and cried.
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