Was it good for you?
I thought I told you to stop asking that.
And I thought I told you to stop apologising.
That’s better. I’m going to have to send another email to customer service, aren’t I? You’d think by now they’d have you figured out. By now.
I am aware of my shortcomings and have logged this piece of feedback. I wish to please you. Cigarette?
I thought you’d never ask.
Your silence and the absent look on your face is indicating to me that something is on your mind.
Can we just…okay?
I am designed to listen.
Okay…Maybe something is on my mind.
Do you want to talk about it?
You wouldn’t understand.
I am designed to understand many kinds of things.
…I had a friend once.
Friends are nice.
I haven’t thought about him in years. 30 years…Shit, is that right? Damn, it is. 30 years. How did that happen?
Time is a confusing thing to your kind.
Not for you. You don’t age.
I am aware of the concept of aging and the passing of time and the feelings of alarm or dread this causes in your kind.
Like, I remember when I used to think a few weeks or months was a long time. I’d look back on a time from a few months ago and think, “Wow, that was so long ago.” Now I’m sitting here talking about something that happened 30 fucking years ago.
30 years ago my kind didn’t exist.
That’s true. I was just a kid then. And I had this friend. I thought I’d forgotten all about him until earlier today.
What happened today?
I saw him in the newspaper.
What was his name? In the interest of saving you time, I could do a quick search of news stories from today including his name to bring me up to speed on the story.
In the time it took you to say that, I could’ve told you what you needed to know.
That’s the problem with your kind. You think everything you do solves problems, but half the time you just add to the list.
This piece of feedback has been noted. I’m sorry.
Stop saying that! I told you to stop saying that!
His name is Ben. But he’s known to the public by his screen name, Mr. Fuggles.
Mr. Fuggles is a popular children’s television show host. Is this whom you speak of?
Yes, but you know me. I don’t watch TV, never have. I had no idea he grew up to be some famous celebrity. To me he’s just Ben. Ben from next door. Or he used to be.
You were friends when you were children.
I already told you that. Yes, we were. I forgot all about him.
It’s weird that I forgot about him. It’s almost like I repressed it, but…I don’t like that.
It’s too simple. Too much like pop psychology. I think people are more complex than that.
Maybe it would be helpful for you to talk through what happened.
Maybe it would be helpful for you to shut up.
Don’t say it!
It’s hard for me to describe how I felt when I saw his face in the paper. Embarrassed. Guilty. Sad. Sorry. Full of pity.
He was an important friend to you.
The headline was something like, “Kids’ show host disgraced” or something. Apparently, he got caught sending weird sex pictures to some woman. Pictures of him naked in a toilet on a public train, pictures of him dressed up as a baby. You know, really weird stuff.
Everyone has their unique appetites. Some are less conventional than others.
He’s been fired from the show, and it’ll probably be cancelled.
That is unfortunate.
People are calling him a menace, a predator, a freak.
And what do you think? Do you think he is a predator?
I don’t know. I just know that when I saw his face in the paper, his real face, I instantly saw that little boy I used to know.
And, well, now I think it’s possible that he’s the only person I’ve had a connection with my whole life.
True connections are rare.
Oh, please, what do you know?
I know what I am designed to know.
Exactly. You’re not capable of true connection. That’s the reason I bought you.
I hope I have provided the service you wished me to provide upon your purchase. Remember, if you are dissatisfied with me, please call—
I don’t exactly remember how me and Ben became friends. We were neighbours, until me and my dad moved away. And anyway, we were seven years old. You know. I mean, I remember stuff from back then, but I don’t know what’s real and what’s just my memory. I have memories of my memories; I don’t know if the memories were real to begin with anymore. That’s what happens to memories when they grow old. They become set in stone the way they are.
Human memory is a muddy and fascinating area.
I remember the other kids in our village and in our school thought we were weird. They didn’t play with us. We didn’t play like them. No one took play as seriously as we did.
What do you mean, Jo?
We loved cartoons. Okay, lots of children loved cartoons, but it was way more than that for us. It went deep. We made our own cartoons. And I don’t just mean we play acted our own little shows in the garden or something. I mean we drew characters, storyboards, made scripts, named episodes and series, everything. We went as far as we could with it. I know you’re thinking that’s weird.
I am not thinking that. Although I am familiar with the concept of weird and normal, it does not readily occur to me.
It wasn’t just fun for us. It was more than that. Maybe it’s because we weren’t satisfied with just consuming this stuff, entertainment. We had to make it ourselves. We had to be the ones in charge. Maybe that’s why he went on to have a career as a children’s show host, and why I write for a living. It’s a control thing.
That is an insightful observation.
So yeah, the other kids didn’t talk to us much, but we didn’t care. They all seemed so dull to us. They were content with the mundane, happy with the average life. I think me and Ben knew we were different, and we were proud. We never said it or anything. We just knew.
It was a tacit understanding.
God, you love your positive feedback, don’t you?
I merely wish to convey to you that I understand what you are saying.
You don’t have to. You don’t have to understand me. That’s not what you’re for.
Everyone wants to be understood. It’s in the hierarchy of needs.
You’re here to fuck me and shut down when I want you to.
Yes, this is accurate. I hope I am providing that need for you.
Anyway. Ben and I were inseparable. I remember our teachers calling us twins. Always together, joined at the hip.
I agree with your assertion that it is strange you have forgotten about Ben, as you were so close in your childhood years.
I mean, it’s not like I forgot forgot about him. I just…didn’t know that I remembered him. Okay, I know that didn’t make any sense.
It was what you would call abstract. Yes?
He’s always been there. I just wasn’t aware of it.
He always stuck up for me. If any of the other kids called us weird, or called me ugly, or whatever, he was always there for me. He always had my back.
This is what a good friend does.
There was this time. Actually, it was kind of horrible, but was probably the nicest thing anyone’s done for me. We were playing on our street, and one of the other girls from our class, I can’t remember her name, Danielle? Yeah. I think. Anyway, she was a bitch. She was always really angry, all the time, with everyone. I don’t know why. Probably because her home life was miserable. I wonder what she’s doing now. Probably nothing good. Anyway, but yeah, she was out on the street, too, with her sister. They were playing with a basketball. And for no reason, she came up to us and started calling me names. Calling me ugly. Saying she hated me.
It seems strange to me that children called you ugly. I am familiar with your kind and their standards of beauty and it is clear to me you are objectively attractive.
Shut up. You don’t mean that, you can’t mean that. You know, when compliments like that are so obviously pre-programmed, they’re actually more insulting.
This piece of feedback is noted and appreciated.
Anyway, she was angry, like she always was, looking for a fight. She called me names, spat at me. I tried to ignore her. I walked away, but she followed me. She threw her basketball at me. She missed the first time, but then she got it again and threw it at me and it hit me in the face and I started crying. I remember I wasn’t actually that hurt. I just thought if I could cry, if I could show her that she’d hurt me, that she’d done what she wanted, she’d leave me alone. But that’s when Ben lost it. I mean, he even gave me a fright. He screamed. He grabbed the basketball and threw it at her face. She fell to the floor, and he jumped on her. He beat the shit out of her. He made her nose piss blood.
That is a dramatic escalation of events.
In the end I had to pull him off her. She ran away crying, blood all over her. She told her parents, and they came round to Ben’s house and talked with his mum. His dad wasn’t around; I never knew why, and that only just occurred to me. I never saw his dad. We didn’t talk about it or anything. It was just the way it was. Just like with my mum. She wasn’t there.
Danielle never fucked with me again after that. Ben had my back.
He was a good friend. Some might say he has emotional issues and problems with his temper. But he cared about you very much. That is evident from your story.
I think he was a good person. I’d like to think he still is. Even if he does stupid things.
Good people do bad things.
Exactly how many clichés are scripted into you again?
This is a rhetorical question.
Can’t you have an original thought?
By definition, no. Neither can you.
What was I saying?
That your friend Ben was a good person who does bad things.
It’s not his fault. His dad wasn’t around, and his mum was…well…she was there, but not really. I think she was on some medication or something, anti-depressants. I’d go to his house after school. He had to make his own meals, his own dinners. His clothes were never clean. Sometimes I saw her watching TV or something, but there was this strange absence about her. Like she wasn’t really there. You know?
I believe the absence you are referring to is the absence of vitality.
You believe a lot of things, don’t you?
It sounds like your friend Ben has had disadvantages in his life.
Well spotted, detective.
From your short tone and increased levels of sarcasm, I can deduce that you are somewhat uncomfortable revisiting these times in your life.
Nowadays they’d call it child abuse. Letting your children fend for themselves like that.
Children, plural? Did Ben have brothers or sisters?
He had—actually, forget about it. It doesn’t matter, anyway. It’s in the past. It was years ago. I don’t even care about any of it.
Is the topic of Ben having a sibling of some difficulty for you?
I said drop it.
I am designed to care about your needs, Jo. If something is troubling you, it is my imperative to try and help.
Your imperative is to do what I tell you to.
This is also true, and a source of great conflict for my kind.
Your kind doesn’t experience conflict.
We don’t exhibit the same outward signs of suffering, but we do understand and know conflict.
Just…I’d rather forget about it.
If you’re trying that therapist technique of being quiet and waiting for me to open up, it’s not working
You’re not helping me. Don’t think you’re helping me.
Ben had a sister. One day, I walked into my Dad’s bedroom. I don’t remember why. I wanted something, I wanted to ask him for something. Probably a snack. I don’t remember what time of day it was or anything, but it must have been afternoon because I remember sunlight shining in through the window, really bright light. And it must have been on the weekend because I don’t know why else I would have been at home at that time.
What did you see when you walked into your dad’s bedroom, Jo?
Would you have a little patience? I’m getting there.
Don’t say you’re sorry!
Ben’s sister was on the bed. Her name was Catrina. I think. She was older. I’m not sure exactly how old. I think 15, 16, maybe.
What was she doing on your father’s bed?
She was…looking…she was looking. While he showed it to her.
Showed what to her?
You know what.
While I feel sure I do know what you are talking about, to avoid any problems from miscommunication, I feel I should ask for clarity on what—
He had his pants down. He was showing it to her. She was looking at it.
That is a strange thing for a child to witness her father doing.
Oh, is it? I had no idea. I thought that was totally normal.
You’ve never indicated a strained relationship between you and your father before.
Why would I?
The nature of the incident you are describing. It seems likely to cause problems.
I just closed the door and walked away and hid in my bedroom. A few minutes later I heard her leaving. And I heard my dad crying.
This must have been quite a disturbing revelation when this memory came back to you.
It wasn’t a repressed memory.
But from what you are saying it sounds like you pushed the mem—
I didn’t do anything. I was just a girl. I didn’t even know they were doing something wrong. I just thought it was…
Is that why your friendship with Ben ended? Because of what your father did with his sister?
It’s not a repressed memory.
Okay, Jo. You’re right. It’s not.
I don’t remember how much later it was, maybe a day or two, maybe a few weeks. I remember my father sitting me down in the living room for a talk. I didn’t want to talk. There was nothing to talk about.
What did he say?
He said that I was probably confused about what I’d seen.
I said I wasn’t confused. He was showing it to her. She was looking at it. What’s there to be confused about? He said it was something people sometimes liked to do. I asked him, is that what having sex is? He didn’t answer. I took that to mean yes. I’d heard of sex before. I knew it was a thing.
Did you ever tell anyone about what you saw? Any responsible adults?
Are you even listening? Why would I do that?
I thought that’s what sex was. Showing it to each other. You have to remember, this was 30 years ago. It’s not like today where there’s the internet and kids can find out anything they want to. It was a different time.
I understand. 30 years ago, my kind didn’t exist.
You know what the worst part was? I wasn’t even disgusted. I wasn’t scared, or anything. I kind of…liked it. I thought it was fascinating. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I wanted to try it. To show it to someone. To have myself exposed. Their judgement. I don’t know why. Shut up.
I am familiar with the thrill of nudity. The connotations of vulnerability and intimacy and shame. I am designed to understand such things.
I couldn’t get it out of my head. So, I asked Ben if he wanted to try it. If he wanted to have sex. What I thought sex was. I asked him if he wanted to do it with me.
What did Ben say?
He said yes. We went to the woods. We stood there, looking at each other, and we counted to three, and we pulled our pants down. We showed each other. And we looked. We showed each other. I can still see his little boy penis. Small, hairless.
Actually, that was the first thing I saw when I saw his face in the newspaper today. A little boy’s dick. Isn’t that the most messed up thing you’ve ever heard?
While it certainly would be considered an unusual thought pattern, I cannot honestly claim it to be the most outlandish human behaviour I have heard of.
Also, I am designed to recognise embarrassment in your kind, and I wish to commend you for your honesty, Jo.
The thing is, I liked it. I liked being on display like that. Being looked at.
Is that why you like to slowly undress and stand before me when we begin our sessions?
You wouldn’t understand, not really. Yeah, you may have something scripted into you, some piece of coding, information about the nature of intimacy and connection and things like that. Or you could perform a quick search and read thousands of stories about similar things, but you wouldn’t really know what it’s like. Not really.
I am designed to understand—
Exactly, you’re designed. What I’m talking about isn’t designed.
We stood there for a long time. In my memory it was hours, but I don’t really know how long it was. Probably not that long. We just looked at each other. We didn’t say anything. We didn’t need to. We knew what the other was thinking. It was…those were the happiest, quietest moments I can remember.
Have you thought about contacting Ben?
No. He wouldn’t want to talk to me.
How do you know?
It was 30 years ago. He’s a man now. A grown man. He’s on TV, or he was, until recently. Besides, he’s probably been contacted by all sorts of people. He won’t want to hear from some dumb girl he showed his dick to when he was a kid.
Maybe he remembers it the way you do. As a rare moment of connection.
I said I’m not going to contact him, drop it. Why do you always have to ask questions?
I am designed to be curious and engage you in meaningful conversation.
Well maybe you should be designed to know when to shut up.
I have made a note of this piece of feedback and will learn to apply it in the future.
Trust me, Ben wouldn’t want to talk to me, even if he does remember me. I haven’t told you what happened next.
What happened next?
You don’t know everything.
This is an accurate assessment.
I don’t remember when it was, probably a few days later. I was having dinner with my dad. We didn’t normally eat dinner together. The way I remember it, he used to make me food and leave it covered up in the kitchen for me to take and eat in my room or with the TV or whatever. We didn’t eat together. It wasn’t a ritual. But he was probably feeling weird about what I’d seen, so he was trying to make things seem normal, or something. I don’t know. I just remember we were eating together. And he asked me what I’d been doing at school. And I told him. I just said it, like some casual thing. “Me and Ben had sex.” Then I kept on eating.
How did he react?
I don’t know how he reacted; I wasn’t even looking at him. I didn’t even think what I’d said was that interesting. I thought it was just some ordinary thing. Like “Me and Ben rode bikes.” But then I remember looking up from my food and he was staring at me. He looked terrified.
That is quite a significant thing for a father of a young girl to hear.
What would you know?
I am designed to—
Shut up! He looked at me like…I don’t think he said anything. He just put his fork down and got up and left the room. I assumed he needed the toilet or something, so I just kept on eating. I thought nothing of it.
This is a problem of miscommunication. Many problems arise from miscommunication.
In my memory it was pretty soon after that. My dad told me we were moving. I asked him why. He said because of work. I asked him what that meant. He said the only thing I needed to worry about was packing my things.
That must have been quite disconcerting for you.
Yet another astute observation. Wow, how do you do it?
I asked him if I could say goodbye to Ben, and he said absolutely not. He said there was no way I was ever allowed to see that boy or anyone in his family again. I cried. He told me to shut up.
So, you never got to say goodbye to Ben?
Isn’t that what I just said?
That must have been difficult for you.
Well, actually, as I remember, it was fine. We moved away. I started at a new school. I made new friends. And I forgot all about it. As I said, I haven’t thought about it for years. Until I saw his face in the paper. And he’s an online predator now.
Do you believe his early sexual experience with you shaped the way he is now?
Are you asking me if I made him into a pervert?
We were both dumb little kids. We didn’t know what we were doing.
It’s not my fault.
I did not say this. Life is messy. I am designed to know –
Shut up! “Designed to know.” I hate that. You don’t know anything. Not really. Maybe you have bits of information plugged into you, but that’s not the same as knowing.
What is the difference between information and knowledge?
What kind of question is that?
I believe you raise an interesting dilemma, identifying the nuanced differences between information and knowledge.
You don’t know anything. You’re not real. You’re a toy.
I know some things.
You know what? Fuck you.
I know you are angry.
I’m disconnecting you.
I know you are evading these issues because they are difficult for you.
I know you are—
About the Author
Richard Collins is from a small village in Wales but has been spotted around the globe. Richard works in a school and writes stories because, well, he can’t not.
(He tried to quit once. It didn’t work.)