The first time she saw me, she jumped up and down so much the bedside light flickered and went out. I later discovered that the wiring in her apartment was in need of upgrading.
“You didn’t.” she cried. “You didn’t need to do that!”
They set to work immediately and soon had me wearing the chocolate brown leather jacket I had arrived with. Her face crinkled as she inspected me.
“I do love the feel of real paper. But, I think.…” She stopped.
He smiled. “For me, I sometimes make deeper connections with machines – or in my case, bicycles – than with other humans. Does that sound too crazy?”
Unexpectedly, I was tossed onto the duvet.
“Not this human, I hope,” she reprimanded, pushing her puckered lips hard onto his and forming a tight cordon around his neck with her arms. Then they collapsed, by degrees, like the flat corrugated cartons I had seen knocked over in the factory.
So this was it. I had arrived. But what happened next, immediately to my right, I was unprepared for. I understood it only in terms of him uncovering his USB cord in an effort to establish a connection with her power port. Yet, despite vigorous attempts, no stable connection could be made.
Instead of showing frustration, they lay back on the bed, screeching with laughter. I now know from my education in literature that the activity that had occurred falls within the category of “fornication”, a word I’d been aware of from my two dictionaries. What it entailed, I had never understood. They followed it up with something I later recognised in Fifty Shades of Gray, where it masquerades as “my inner goddess doing the merengue with some salsa moves.”
Afterwards, they concentrated on making me operational. During the registration process I discovered that her name was Judy. She decided that I was to be Algernon, after the character in The Importance of Being Earnest. I loved my new name – it was so me. And within minutes she was referring to me as Algie!
What a period of joy it was that followed! What edification. The delights of discovering with Judy the elegance of Jane Austen and the passion of Charlotte Bronte. The rapture of being held by her as she raced through Great Expectations. Her fingers pulsing nervously on my reverse as she lived and breathed The Tell Tale Heart. Judy carried me everywhere, pride of place in her emerald green Spanish leather handbag.
My early diet of Jane Austen had hardly suggested that people work for a living. But Judy was the diary secretary to a Chief Executive, and on her very first day back at the office I was passed amongst her colleagues and admired. How clever of Dieter to so finely judge his first present. What a catch he must be! I admit to experiencing some regret that my early moment of glory was shared with him. I now also know that their reaction was chiefly because I was a novelty, being an early incarnation (complete with tiny keyboard).
Quaint as it may sound, I was consumed by my sense of duty. I was now Judy’s. It was my job to store her books and facilitate her choices (displaying the text in her preferred font), define the trickier words and to respond to her natural reading rhythms.
Sometimes, as light and shadows from his lava lamp played on the sloping wall of his bedroom in the attic, she would read aloud to him the stories of Guy de Maupassant, her fingers squeezing me ever more tightly with each turn of the page. How well I understood from that pressure on my buttons, her desire for him to love all that she loved. But Dieter, whilst attentive and complimentary, never quite reached the requisite levels of enthusiasm. And so these occasions were always punctuated with questions from Judy as to what he really thought.
Over time (and this was preferable to me), reading once again became something that she did without him. The classics were now supplemented by a newspaper, The Independent, and also with Dieter’s letters which he sent direct to me (wirelessly) when he was away. I had been pleased to learn that he divided his time equally between the UK and his native Germany.
The letters were long and packed with details about his father’s bicycle company, their new superlight frames and plans to make headway in the American market. Having covered business matters, he would allow himself more informally to focus on Judy and their relationship.
Judy would approach the reading of these letters in a different way to the classics. She was as keen to go back and re-read passages as she was to progress forwards towards completion. Sometimes she would stop reading, a puzzled frown lingering upon her brow. What was she searching for beneath the words? Did they alone not provide her with nourishment enough? Having gleaned a thing or two about communication between lovers, I debated whether her love for Dieter was more like the foliage in the woods – something that would change with each winter – or closer resembled the eternal rocks beneath. Having finished a letter, Judy would usually make a hot drink and return to their living room. I should have mentioned that they had taken the – in my view – unfortunate decision to live together. She was occasionally tearful when alone in the evenings, but it was then that I was most full of hope. I would will her to pick me up so that we could share in the activity that was dearest to our hearts. Sometimes she would run a bath and, holding me carefully above her breasts, would read in steamy silence. I adored it when it was just Judy and me time!
The most dismal days for me were those when I was inexplicably left alone in the apartment. I preferred to believe that Judy had picked up the wrong bag, or had simply forgotten to take me to work. I could not have lived with myself if I had done anything to cause my abandonment; I summarily dismissed such thoughts from my mind. During those days, I hated the silence. I hated the afternoon presenting its passport and, with me still suffering alone, crossing the treacherous border into night. And most of all I hated being apart from Judy.
It was on just such an afternoon when I was alone that a bald man in a cream T-shirt entered the apartment. I had become aware of noises (I had hoped that Judy was back from work early). But then he slapped the bedroom light on, belched, and began carelessly dragging anything he liked the look of into a large hold-all bag. I was on the bedside table, where Judy had left me the previous evening. She had read for thirty five minutes after Dieter had fallen asleep. I had luxuriated in her attention, made all the more pleasurable by being in front of his sleeping frame. But now, in that very same spot, I was faced with an altogether different situation.
I had sufficient knowledge of petty crimes committed by the orphans and pick-pockets of London to know what was going on. I’ll admit that it was my own safety which initially concerned me. What if the man dropped me into that sack along with the designer clothes, jewellery and electronic goods? Worse still was the realisation that he was mad as well as bad. Raising his right leg in front of me and using the base of his foot, he smashed the full length mirror on the wardrobe and kicked the dresser stool, sending it clattering into the door of the en-suite. Then, approaching me, he made as if to grab me, but instead swiped at the bedside table with his bare arm, tipping it over and causing me to perform a neat forward roll on the floor. A torrent of CDs and framed photographs from the shelf above rained down on top of me. I could hear him above me, crunching on the piled up possessions, and I was in fear that he would step directly on me and crush me. But the noise subsided. I heard one or two thuds and he was gone. Oh, the agony of waiting for Judy’s return. The guilt that I hadn’t done more to stop him.
That day, Judy and Dieter came home together. Judy was utterly dismayed by the chaos she encountered; she ran from room to room, spraying expletives wherever she went. Dieter called for her to remain calm, stressing that she must not touch anything: “It is all evidence, Judy!”
But Judy was already in the bedroom, and, in the confusion of the moment did not hear him. She was on her hands and knees sifting the debris, wailing for her Algernon. And then, as she scooped me up and held me aloft, she planted a beautiful, lipsticky, kiss on my screen. I knew in that moment how much she loved me and how much I loved her.
Her delight was cut short. Dieter stormed in behind her, screaming about an open window that he’d discovered – that she, Judy, must have left open – and that would certainly scupper their chances of recovering on their insurance. I’d never seen him subject poor Judy to such a vicious verbal attack. But she was not standing for it. Thank goodness for her strength of character. “Since all you care for is the insurance money,” she told him, “you had better phone the frigging company immediately.”
And with that, she marched past him and out of the flat. In the nearest café, she re-read Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, drinking soya lattes and stroking my leather cover repeatedly.
She was my own heroine that evening and I reflected on our special relationship. We e-readers are created equal and innocent, and we mediate our understanding of the world through the personal choices of our owners. Our personalities are therefore truly shaped by (and become markedly similar to) theirs. The relationship between owner and e-reader might be said to be the very purest form of parenting.
I had plenty of opportunity to develop this thesis, as soon afterwards Judy began devouring a plethora of books on the subject. What to Expect when you’re Expecting and Bringing up Bébé were two of the many titles. It was a worrying development, providing a stark warning that my life would soon be changing forever.
My feelings of insecurity were not helped by a conversation on the subject of names that I overheard from a new fuchsia handbag.
“Dietz,” she began. “I know it’s slightly strange, but if it’s a boy – how about Algernon?”
“But – but, what about…?” I imagined him casting his arm in my general direction.
“I know, but I like that name. PLEASE. Algernon?”
How was I to feel then? How could I not wish that I’d been stolen after all and sold on to a new home where I might be truly appreciated?
Since the burglary the atmosphere in the flat had changed. Security had become a charged topic of conversation. There was less fornication and this led to a confrontation in which I was centre stage. One afternoon, Dieter, alone and restless, picked me up and looked through Judy’s varied collection. He began browsing in the online store. He downloaded a sample of Fifty Shades of Gray. And then purchased the whole thing. I did not enjoy the feel of him reading me. I noticed that he did not do so with sustained attention. He flicked from page to page, then settled on a passage which he read slowly and meticulously. I was then dropped (open and face down) on to the sofa as he hurriedly left the room.
I felt degraded. I knew that it was not a book that Judy would ever have chosen and this was confirmed when she said: “It contaminates Algie – just being on him!”
Dieter’s face darkened to scarlet.
“You clearly need to broaden your horizons, Judy.” And in a voice choked with anger, “Now that you’re pregnant, I would suggest our relationship might actually benefit from your reading it.”
I understood by now that I saw only a small part of Judy and Dieter’s relationship. But I had little doubt that this episode was linked to the thorny subject of fornication.
Perhaps it was no coincidence that when Judy forced herself to read this controversial book, my functions first started to fail me. I forgot where she’d reached in the story and soon afterwards opened up on a book about forgiveness that Judy had finished months earlier. She rolled her eyes and called me a “stupid thing”.
And then came the darkest period. Dieter was away. His letters had told of the family business struggling, so he was spending more time in Germany. That morning, Judy returned to the bedroom looking as grey as a battleship. She stayed there for the rest of the day. And then for several more days: sleeping a lot; hardly eating; frequently crying; and never reading. I was a helpless spectator on the bedside table. I had no idea what had happened. No inkling of what was wrong.
That is until a week later, when she received Dieter’s final letter. Delivered wirelessly as usual, he must have also texted her as she opened it immediately. It read as follows.
From now on I have decided to make my life in Germany once again. My father cannot cope without me. I have realised in any case that I will be happiest with Heike. I may not have mentioned her before. She is our new marketing manager and we have been spending much time together. It is probably for the best that there will be no Algernon the Second. Like me, he would have struggled to find a place close to your heart bearing in mind your other passion.
Naturally I will arrange a collection of my belongings.
It was then that Judy did a strange thing. She found my text to speech function and made me read the letter aloud. It was the first time I’d done this. Despite the discomfort of voicing those words, I was filled with hope that it would now just be the two of us – that I would remain Judy’s forever. Perhaps the letter was hinting that she’d always loved me more than Dieter?
As soon as I’d completed the letter, she made me read it again. And then again! And as I did so, her expression changed. No longer my beautiful Judy, she was now a wild woman whose face was filled with loathing and anger! I wanted to cry out loud that I was not responsible, that I wished only to make her happy. After the fourth reading she looked at me with piercing intensity and screamed a long wordless scream, her mouth hideous and contorted. And then she snapped me shut. Putting me to one side, she left the room. I did not see her for two months after that.
In fact, it may have been less. Or perhaps more. How could I tell, being without hope? I had certainly been abandoned. I could feel the dust gathering on top of me, as if I were a bad memory that needed burying. I lay alone in my sarcophagus of depression.
I was brought to by the voices of Dieter and Judy. I wondered if it had all been a fantasy. Maybe they were still together. And yes, here they both were, in the bedroom, talking about who would keep the clock radio. And a fancy speaker that tuned into mobile devices. Then Dieter picked me up.
“Our old friend Algernon,” he said with a tense smile.
“Yes, your very first present to me.”
“How could I have forgotten? It seems so long ago.”
“Have it. I never use it now. Besides, I’d rather not be reminded of you.”
There was a pause. Dieter put me down again.
“It’s an outdated model,” he said. “If I get one, it’ll be the whizz-bang latest.”
“It was on its last legs anyway,” she agreed. “Let’s recycle it.”
“Yes. Or they can be reconditioned. Better for the environment.”
It was a shock, let me tell you, to hear of myself referred to in this way; a mere object, well past its shelf-life, ripe for recycling or reconditioning. Both the dreaded R words sent shockwaves through my system. They meant me being slated – a whitewash of everything that made me, me. My preference, by a small margin, was for reconditioning. That at least promised a rebirth of sorts, with the possibility of a new owner who might show me loyalty and not cast me so brutally aside.
“I’m not bothered either way,” Judy said. “Leave it with me. I’ll sort it.”
They then moved into the kitchen where they argued heatedly about the silver cutlery set they’d been given as an engagement present. They both wanted that!
The flat went quiet again and another few hours went by before Judy returned to the bedroom, this time alone. She sat down on the stool in front of the dressing table, where I had so often seen her applying her make up before work. She reached across, picked me up and placed me carefully on the dressing table. And then she opened me. She began browsing in the online shop and quickly settled on Cold Comfort Farm. It was about Flora Poste, making a new life following the death of her parents in the Spanish plague. As she read, Judy started laughing – that high pitched cackle of a laugh I’d first heard those many long months ago. Judy suddenly looked at her watch, and, swearing quietly to herself, rose from her chair. She put on her gloves, dropped me into a new burgundy handbag and left the flat.