The house itself had been mostly rebuilt over the years. Mainly it was the fire that had destroyed a good deal of it, a blaze whose cause had disappeared into family myth but had to do with her own great grandmother and a candle used to light her room before the days of electric light. When the family had grown larger more bedrooms had been added and that had meant a good deal of knocking down and redesigning the single storey home. Her grandfather had reversed some of this work when her granny had complained that the number of rooms served only to remind her that the family was much reduced from what it had been. The house hadn’t been made smaller, just the rooms inside bigger. Being timber it hadn’t been difficult or even expensive at the time. In those days there were still several stands of trees nearby that could be felled and trimmed and cut to make the materials that were needed.
But through everything the veranda had remained unchanged. In reality of course it hadn’t. Over the years all of the posts and rails had been replaced, and several of the floorboards but it hadn’t changed in appearance. When anything had needed to be replaced it had carefully been crafted to match the rest. The nail was original though, and the plank that her great great grandfather had fitted in place. It lay to one side of the main walkway into the house and so hadn’t been worn and trampled by the hundreds of thousands of footsteps that had taken family and visitors up the wide steps to and from the front door. The veranda was original in the same way that a broom was said to be an original one even though both head and shaft may have been replaced several times over the years as need had arisen.
Mrs. Cromarty stirred from her light sleep, awakened by the dull thud of a tightly rolled newspaper coming to an abrupt stop as it landed on the lawn.
“Thank you, Billy,” she called to the disappearing back of the figure of a young boy cycling casually away, orange bag suspended over his shoulder by a single strap. She was rewarded by a quick hand wave in acknowledgement.
She gripped the ends of the chair’s arms. As her hands curled around the smooth curves of the wood, her thoughts couldn’t help but flash back to the days when her skin had been tight and smooth, white and clear and dappled ever so lightly with freckles. It didn’t seem that long ago but now, at one hundred and five, the skin was wrinkled and hung loosely. Her arms weren’t shrivelled but had grown noticeably thinner over the last few years as she’d grown older and her appetite had all but disappeared. Her left hand spent most of the time clenched in a ball, a reaction to the arthritis that afflicted many of her joints. It hurt now and then. In fact it hurt all of the time, but it was a small dull continuous pain that she’d grown so used to that she didn’t notice except when she thought about it. Every so often it twinged, or spasmed when she used it. The pain was more intense for a moment but she usually made no sound in reaction, expecting it and accepting it as just one of those things that one had to endure with age.
The regular creaking from the nail rubbing against the floorboard stopped as she ceased rocking back and forth. The creaking of her bones as she braced herself to rise and walk to the paper was only in her head.
“It’s okay, I’ll get it,” her Sally’s voice called out.
Mrs. Cromarty relaxed again and with a little pressure from her feet against the ground the rocker resumed its gentle motion, the nail against the wood picking up its steady complaint. Consciously, she was grateful for Sally’s offer. Even though the newspaper was no more than a few feet away from her, retrieving it would have taken her a great deal of effort. Subconsciously she knew that her Sally wouldn’t have heard the paper arrive but had known instantly it had happened, having been told so by the Network at the same time Billy had told it he’d thrown it.
She watched as her Sally stepped through the clipped back double doors, held open to let the warm afternoon breeze flow into the house pushing out the old air through the back door which Mrs. Cromarty knew would also be held ajar by the large pot plant kept there just for that purpose. Her Sally almost skipped down the steps and took the few paces to the newspaper, bending smoothly and scooping it up gracefully. She slowed as she slipped off the band that held it as a tube and removed the plastic bag it was encased in. By the time she’d walked across to Mrs. Cromarty she’d unfurled it and placed it, now flat, on the little table that stood beside the rocker.
“Dinner will be another hour,” said her Sally. “Would you like a drink in the meantime?”
While her voice wasn’t unpleasant, there was an unmistakeably tinny sound in there somewhere. Later models had apparently eliminated it, but not when Mrs. Cromarty had last upgraded. That had been twenty years ago now. It didn’t seem strange that her Sally hadn’t aged since then. Mrs. Cromarty didn’t really feel she had grown any older in that score of years. In fact every day had been pretty much the same during that time. Each morning her Sally helped her rise, bathe and dress. At first mornings had often been spent visiting friends. As the years had progressed there had been fewer and fewer of these to visit, illness and old age taking them with almost monotonous regularity. Sometimes they had visited places not people. Her Sally had helped her walk around parks and gardens, and listened attentively when Mrs. Cromarty had reminisced about earlier visits with her husband Henry. These trips were usually rounded off with a picnic lunch. Her Sally, of course, didn’t eat, and she’d eventually grown weary of eating alone. The conversation was pleasant enough but often led her to remember those days out with Henry, both of them ravenous by the time they stopped to find a spot to spread the blanket they’d brought and devour the delicious morsels they’d packed together in the wicker basket before they’d set out. They would laugh as they both reached at the same time for the last chicken leg or chocolate cookie that lay on the plate between them. It was an unwritten rule that if that last item was savoury, Henry would take it. If it was sweet, Mrs. Cromarty would have the pleasure. When she picnicked with her Sally, the basket would only have enough food for one, and if her appetite led her to eat all that was there, seeing just one item left always made her feel slightly sad.
The fall in population had been a worldwide phenomena. In the less developed countries constant fighting had taken considerable tolls and as the more developed cultures stopped both intervening militarily and providing humanitarian aid for their own economic reasons, the extreme climate events of droughts when there should be rain and floods when there should be sunshine ensured that crop failure was the norm rather than unusual. Starvation hit the children hardest and large families were decimated.
In more developed countries, for many the choice to have no children had been a deliberate one. Usually it had to do with lifestyle. Sometimes it was simply that the couple made the cold calculation that the extra expense of children would drag down the standard of living they’d grown used to. Others decided that an uninterrupted career was more important than having babies. Some who had intended just to delay child rearing rather than avoiding it altogether had found that even with medical help they’d just left it too late. Those that did become parents often limited their family to a single child, usually for the same reasons that other couples remained childless. From the small towns like the one Mrs. Cromarty called home many parents had moved into cities. People appreciated smaller classes with more attention for the individual child, but there came a time that they wanted to ensure companionship for their offspring. Factories and offices followed them and inevitably even those without children started to echo the contraction to secure work. It became somewhat of a circle. With fewer workers in the smaller towns more employers moved to the cities and with less work to be found in these small hamlets more people followed.
Mrs. Cromarty hardly read the paper now. She had no interest in the celebrity news it carried nor in the detailed political analysis, even though it had been carefully crafted just for her. On a good day she found one or two articles that interested her, but usually she satisfied herself with looking at the photographs, of which there were many, and just glancing at the headlines which she could still read without needing to put on her glasses.
Instead she continued to rock and gazed down the same street that she had watched for most of her life. Even when she had been growing up as a small child she had noticed the main street their house sat on changing. At first, it had become less busy. It had never been particularly heavy with traffic, but the vehicles passing through had all but disappeared as soon as a new electric tram service connecting the two cities that the road joined had been completed. Despite protests and objections the service had bypassed the town completely. The new route was slightly longer in distance but avoided several steep climbs by passing a dozen miles south and computers had proved beyond doubt that the power saved over just a few years of use would be great indeed.
While Mrs. Cromarty’s early years hadn’t been lonely it had been devoid of real children. She interacted with others in her lessons and virtual playtimes spent connected to the Network but when school time was over there were no other youngsters to play with, no-one to encourage her to push boundaries and break rules. She did spend time exploring the town on her own, but beyond its borders there was little to excite her imagination. In earlier times the few remaining wild places had been tamed, turned to massive fields of corn and wheat to meet what was seen as an ever increasing need to produce food. Their part of the world had not avoided the extreme weather conditions that had afflicted other countries and the combination of drought and rapidly falling demand for crops had made it uneconomic to use the land so intensively. Arable farming had been replaced with half hearted attempts to rear cattle and sheep. Even in relatively good years there were few succulent shoots for them to graze on, and small flocks and herds now wandered wherever their hunger took them. The plants that slowly replaced the crops were never given sufficient chance to re-establish the splendour they had once known, and now the once proud fields comprised only grasses, bitten short by constant grazing.
Even in the town itself she had no chance to disappear. Being the only child there she was immediately known to the adults so there was no chance of misbehaving. So her routine of sitting on the veranda and watching the activity on the main road had started young. The rocking chair she was now in had in those days been occupied by her mother. When the one on the other side of the small table wasn’t being used by her father it had been hers.
When the electric tram replaced the through traffic the few vehicles that flowed into and out of the town were driven by people from outlying farms visiting the shrinking number of stores for supplies. Mrs. Cromarty watched as these real people were replaced by the robots which had been developed to take over many of the physical tasks that were becoming more and more difficult for the aging population to perform. At first, they were purely functional but as time progressed they became much more humanoid in appearance. This was as much for their aesthetic value as for what they could do. Machines designed exclusively or primarily for a particular purpose remained simply that – machines. But the ones that interacted more with their human owners came to resemble them more and more closely.
Mrs. Cromarty traded her hometown for life in a city university when she reached the age. It gave her a chance to experience the company of people of a similar age to hers, and it was there that she met Henry. His own childhood had been similar to hers, though his reason for coming to the city had been driven as much by losing the mother who had brought him up alone since his father had left them almost before he could actually remember him.
For the time the city was large, though nothing like the size it would have been only two or three generations earlier. The whole university comprised only two hundred students, most of whom were studying artistic rather than practical subjects. Most practical knowledge and functionality was more and more being invested in machines. Only a very few actual people were required to interact with the complex computers that had become known as the Network. It was the Network that controlled the computers that built the machines that built the machines that took over nearly all of the work that had needed human involvement. There were even computers and machines dedicated to the task of designing and creating better computers, a kind of perpetual motion.
Both Mrs. Cromarty and Henry had studied literature, and as they spent more and more time together they became closer and closer. It was more or less inevitable that when their time at university was over they returned to Mrs. Cromarty’s hometown as husband and wife.
For Mrs. Cromarty and her husband being childless wasn’t a choice. They had tried for many years to have their own, eventually consulting medical experts before finally accepting that even the latest and most innovative techniques couldn’t help them bless their union. When they’d decided to adopt, both the fall in population and their reluctance to move away from Mrs. Cromarty’s family home had not favoured them with success. Finding a child from another country had seemed extremely hard. Besides, the town they lived in had no residents that weren’t Caucasian. Mrs. Cromarty and her husband would have vowed, and probably actually believed, that they weren’t racist and that their reluctance to bring up anyone who looked even slightly different to the accepted norm in their own town would have been unfair to the child. They didn’t try too hard down that route. Both had been only children, and having no siblings there were no nephews and nieces for them to turn their attention to. Instead, they accepted that they would spend their lives in each other’s company alone.
When Henry had been hit by a stroke at the age of seventy three, Mrs. Cromarty had become his full time carer. Her first Sally had helped a great deal. She kept on top of the domestic chores, leaving Mrs. Cromarty to focus all of her attention on Henry. When her own frailty made physical tasks difficult her Sally would help. The two more years that Henry had survived had been hard for them both. The blockage in his artery had left him unable to speak at all and while not completely paralysed had restricted him to either his bed or a chair most of the time. The look in Henry’s eyes told her both how much he loved her and how frustrated he was at not being able to tell her. Mrs. Cromarty had been almost relieved when her husband had succumbed to a bout of pneumonia and left her eventually. Not for herself but for him. She knew how much he hated being locked in a body that would no longer do as he wanted.
Mrs. Cromarty felt the light material of her blouse flutter gently against her old body as the summer breeze rose then fell back. It brought too a snatch of voices from the small figures outside the general store a hundred yards down the street on the opposite side of the road. It was good to see children on the street, even though she knew really that they weren’t. She wanted to think ‘again’ but actually she couldn’t remember a time in her early years when she had. She smiled across the road to the figure opposite of a man of retirement age sitting and rocking in a chair just like hers. She realised that this small gesture probably wouldn’t be picked up and followed it by raising her arm, palm held upright, in an effortless wave that actually took her a great deal of effort. She had never met him but for many years he had sat opposite her, always there when she was on her own veranda, and staying until her Sally helped her take the short walk back into the house. Several times she had risen from the dining chair her Sally had escorted her to, and shuffled across to look out the front window, always to find the figure still there but no longer rocking. From a distance he reminded Mrs. Cromarty very much of Henry, though her Sally had told her the name Brian.
Now that she was awake again, she was greeted by name by all of the passers-by. Even the occasional electric car slowed to a crawl as it passed her lawn and voices called out ‘hello Mrs. Cromarty.’ She knew none of her greeters, though all seemed vaguely familiar, but she smiled and waved and called back a reply. In her mind her cry was hail and strong. In reality it was feeble, often inaudible to all but the closest ear.
She felt very tired. Too tired to pick up the paper and flick through it. Her Sally had told her dinner would be another hour. That would be good. Perhaps by then she’d feel hungry enough to pick at it a little. In her head she knew that not eating the food that her Sally prepared for each meal was not really any different to heating something herself in an oven then throwing it away untouched. In her heart though she couldn’t help feeling a little guilty if she didn’t manage to eat even a few mouthfuls of the meals that her Sally set in front of her. And until her dinner was ready, perhaps another short nap.
She closed her eyes and relaxed further into her chair. She didn’t notice as the bright afternoon sunlight started to fade into dusk. She didn’t feel the slow drop in temperature as the sun’s rays stopped heating the air that twirled playfully around her. Her breathes became shallower and less frequent. When they ceased the rhythmic throb of nail against wood stopped too.
When her Sally came out half an hour later to help her back into the house, the body was already much colder than when she’d been alive. It took her Sally only moments of holding her small wrist to confirm that Mrs. Cromarty had no pulse. It took even less time for her Sally to flash this news to the Network.
Along the street lights in two houses that had been turned on as the afternoon had faded went out again. At the same time, down at the general store the neon sign that announced the most popular brand of cola flicked off. The small figures outside ceased their loud conversation and animated antics. Across the way Brian stopped rocking and became motionless. In the distance, an electric car that had just started heading out of town came to a halt. Her Sally didn’t even wait to lower Mrs. Cromarty’s arm back to the rocker before it stopped. To have ascribed to it a slump or sudden relaxation would have been a totally wrong anthropomorphization.
Many miles away the Network’s checks were instantaneous before it turned itself off. It wasn’t needed any more.