Guess what Mum was doing when I visited MARA HAVEN today. A Foxtrot. With Alec. We knew Alec – her ‘Assisted Living Executive Companion’ - was programmed to obey her every command. But catching our mother doing feather steps with her personal avatar was a bit of a shock. By the way, on the grounds that residents’ basic model Alecs look like ‘Korean boy bands’ she’s insisted on an upgrade. Her Alec is a cross between Cillian Murphy and Johannes from Strictly - meaning he’s moodily light on his feet.
Considering her initial refusal to ‘sell the home I brought you girls up in’, she’s settling in well at MARA HAVEN. I never thought she’d consider a ‘Modern Amenities Retirement Apartment’ especially one using state of the art Artificial Intelligence. So, thank heavens you were here to convince her it was a good idea. She always did take more notice of you despite, as she constantly harps on, you ‘deserted’ her to live in Australia. I bet, after you’ve had the baby, she’ll get Alec to book tickets to fly over. He’s becoming so indispensable, she’ll probably ask him to come with her.
You say your last Facetime session with Mum was weird. Try being here for the real thing. Yes, she’s treating her avatar like a toyboy with hotel management aspirations. Yes, he’s constantly fussing round her but that’s the idea of MARA HAVEN’s Alecs. Does he sleep there? I daren’t ask. Do Alecs sleep? I thought they simply appeared on request, like a well-dressed Deliveroo guy.
You’ll remember from MARA’S brochure, residential Alecs algorithms constantly update through personal interaction. Since Mum’s a retired drama teacher, Alec’s movements are increasingly theatrical with social skills verging on the Graham Norton. I’ll keep you posted.
Had lunch in Mum’s apartment earlier. When we’re in MARA HAVEN’S restaurant or chatting with other residents in the Entertainments Lounge, Mum’s Alec behaves like all the others, ie Mr Carson in Downton with sharper cheekbones. Previously, when we’ve had a bite to eat at Mum’s place, Alec’s either in the kitchen or topping up our glasses and inquiring, like an obsequious maître D’, ‘if everything is to our satisfaction.’ Imagine my surprise when, having served a very nice lasagne, Alec
joined us at the table. I raised an eyebrow but Mum just said, ‘Alec’s working on his conversational skills.’
Alec, nodding so vigorously his head dissolved into a blur, replied enigmatically, ‘Joy says manners maketh man.’ Remembering Hal, the rogue robot in 2001, I questioned the wisdom of getting over-pally with an algorithm. But Mum shushed me saying, I’d hurt his feelings. When I replied, ‘robots don’t have feelings’ Alec turned his back to me in the manner of a spoiled child before shoving back his chair and flouncing off to the kitchen. Melodramatic sobbing drifted through the hatch. ‘See what you’ve done,’ Mum scolded, ‘Upset my avatar.’
Sorry to hear your ankles are swollen Sis. Can’t be much fun in all that heat. Hope Trevor’s hosing you down and mopping your brow. Mum always said marrying a doctor was the most sensible thing you’d ever done – ‘even if he is Australian’.
Anyway, you won’t believe what’s happening at MARA HAVEN. A new resident moved in, a silver fox widower and retired actor called Jim Hanson. I didn’t recognise him but he’s done rep, telly and a stint in Emmerdale apparently. As single men are rare as rain in the Atacama Desert, MARA ladies are purring round him like superannuated groupies while their Alecs twiddle virtual thumbs. You’d think Brad Pitt was in the room. Even Mum’s behaving like some silver haired starlette in full slap and tummy control pants. Being a drama queen, she always did like theatricals.
STOP PRESS. Mum’s been on a date. Jim took her to some Sondheim musical. You’ll hear all about it when you Facetime her next. Apparently, it’s not gone down well with the other MARA HAVEN ladies. Atmosphere in the Entertainments Lounge is positively Arctic. Mum says the other lady residents should ‘grow up.’ Good coming from a woman who has just spent a fortune on new lingerie.
Hope my forthcoming niece is simmering nicely in all that Oz sunshine. Mum’s ridiculously excited. As am I. Can’t wait for you to pop.
No doubt you’ve heard about the courtship in detail. When I last visited Mum asked if I minded her ‘walking out with Jim?’ As Dad’s been gone nearly ten years, I said all we wanted was for her to be happy. Suddenly, Alec appeared on the landing wearing one of Mum’s pinnies. Sweeping downstairs like Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard, he said somewhat bizarrely, ‘With me to look after her, Joy’s always happy.’ That Alec has ears like a bat, I whispered to Mum who ignored him aggressively flicking a feather duster across the furniture and said, ‘I know. He’s become very protective since I’ve been seeing Jim. Says he’s unsure of Jim’s
motives and can’t bear to see me hurt. Isn’t that sweet!’
Sounds like Alec’s been at the Mills & Boone.
Sis. Since we last facetimed (you look like a radiant whale btw), there’s been developments. Remember Mum invited me to have tea with her and Jim. Alec’s obviously been watching Bake Off during avatar down-time because the table was heaving with fluffy sponges, feathery scones and sandwiches with crusts removed ‘just like Joy likes them.’
Given that Mum and Jim had been spending a lot of time together, I wondered if they had something to announce. But every time, Jim cleared his throat to start a sentence, Alec galloped in like a pantomime horse. ‘More tea?’ he interrupted, in repetitive monotone staccato. ‘More tea, Joy.’
Impatiently waving away the hovering teapot, Jim said, ‘Not now.’ To which Alec hissed, ‘I wasn’t asking you.’
Mum looking perplexed, asked Alec to wait in the kitchen. For a moment, I thought he was going to argue with her, but eyes revolving like a fruit machine, he stalked off, shoulders slumped.
‘I think your Alec’s malfunctioning Joy,’ said Jim, taking Mum’s hand in his. ‘I hope it won’t spoil what I’d hoped will be a very special occasion.’ Jim paused and taking Mum’s hand in his, shuffled from the sofa and creakily went down on one knee. ‘Joy, will you………………..’
From the kitchen, the sound of crashing crockery and glassware before a repetitive shrieking, ‘What about me?’
‘I think we’d better call maintenance,’ said Jim.
I can’t believe how much my beautiful new niece has grown since you brought her home from hospital. The photographs made me grizzle because you look so happy. Jim’s booked us on the Adelaide flight, Tuesday week. Since tea with Jim and Alec, MARA HAVEN are reprogramming the Alexes. Not that Mum and Jim care. They’ve put a deposit down on a lovely (android free) retirement apartment. Oh, nearly forgot, Jim’s been offered a place on Strictly so Mum’s teaching him the foxtrot. Hate to admit, Alec was a better dancer.
© Beverley Byrne