On the day of George Fairburn’s funeral, news sites and social media were a-buzz with yet another public relations gaff committed by the UK’s Prime Minister. “PM does not believe in God!” and “God doesn’t exist – PM” were just two of the morning’s screaming tabloid headlines.
It was revealed that the Prime Minister had, the evening before, addressed the Security Council of the United Nations in New York regarding the need for the UK to increase the number of its nuclear weapons. He emphasized his opposition to the burgeoning Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. The message was clear: the UK intended to maintain and reinforce its nuclear deterrence.
After the formalities of the event, the Prime Minister, in a jokey-blokey aside with his Irish counterpart, said, “This whole business is a bloody bore, isn’t it?
“It’s part of the job! Didn’t you know that?” replied the Irish leader. “Anyway, nuclear deterrence? Is there any evidence that nuclear weapons deter anybody from doing anything?”
“Like…Is there any evidence for the existence of God?” quipped the Englishman. “I suppose it just depends on what you believe. Ha!” The conversation was picked up by a nearby mobile phone and within minutes passed on to a number at the Associated Press.
Under grey drizzly English clouds, outside the village church of Bingham on Bure, George Fairburn’s daughter, Kirsty and her husband Mark, met the mourners wishing to bid farewell to George. The ceremony was led by a saddened vicar, Beth McVicar. She and George had become firm friends over the previous twenty years. Their friendship surprised many because George only went to church for one of three reasons: a christening, a wedding or a funeral.
Standing by George’s casket, his mischievous golf partner of many years, Edward Scales, gave a touching eulogy. To the relief of all, Ted recounted none of his off-taste jokes. The congregation heard that George was born and went to school just up the road. He studied medicine (and golf!) at Edinburgh University. He headed for general surgery and worked for a couple of years in war-torn countries with the Red Cross and Médécines Sans Frontières. When deployed to a Red Cross hospital in Afghanistan, he fell in love at first sight with the head nurse. Her name was Maeve. A New Zealander. A Beatles fan. Eventually, both found that their experiences in contexts of immense suffering caused them to ask too many questions of themselves and of human nature. And so, when George decided to hang up his scrubs and rubber gloves, the couple married, made a home right here in Bingham on Bure, had a wonderful daughter and set up a community practice where George proved to be the kindest and most competent doctor imaginable.
After the congregation sang “Jerusalem,” Kirsty thanked them for their support and invited them for a drink and a bite to eat at the White Horse. Smiling through tears, she said “You will have noticed that the last item on the order of service is ‘Buster’.” She paused. “Most of you will have heard of Buster. Some of you will have met him.” She indicated a black cylindrical object sitting on a table next to the casket. “He wanted to say a few words because he and George struck up a close and unique friendship over the last year.” She paused again. “This may be the first time that a funeral service is addressed by an artificial intelligence. I have no idea what Buster’s going to say. I presume it’ll be about George.” Everyone laughed.“I’m certain it will be memorable.”
After a few seconds of silence, all the phones in the church pinged and their screens came to life. The Prime Minister was addressing the House of Commons. He wore a pilot’s cap at a rakish angle and epaulettes with four silver bars. “Mister Speaker, I am sure that ah… this House will join me in conveying our most sincere condolences to the ah… family and friends of a remarkable man, George Fairburn, who is today being laid to rest in Bingham on Bure. Mister Speaker, if I may ah… the House will understand that ah… I am just off a flight from New York and before ah…moving onto more important matters, I’d ah… like to address the issue of the headlines the Honourable Members will have seen this morning. I wish to emphasise that the existence of ah…. God has never been a question in my mind and, Mister Speaker, I must remind the House that faith is a cornerstone of this great nation and ah…. that our beloved monarch is, ah… according to our constitution, the head of ah… the Church of England. And so I say that for anyone and I mean ah… anyone to disparage that institution is to ah… slap the great British public in the face!”
“Mister Speaker…” The voice was familiar. George, frail but feisty as ever, was on his feet in the Opposition benches. “Before I finally shuffle off, may I point out to the Right Honourable Gentleman that he’s talking bollocks and that he needs to have a jolly good chat with Vicar McVicar. She’ll put him right.” Beth’s jaw dropped in astonishment. The ghost of George continued “It’s all about kindness and honesty: qualities that the Right Honorable Gentlemen obviously lacks. Furthermore, he knows perfectly well that the great British public does not want nuclear weapons. What the great British public really wants is a nice cup of tea and a couple of digestive biscuits.” Mark, laughing, put his arms around his wife.
The screens faded to black. “Good morning everyone,” came a new voice, precise and without accent. “I’m Buster. I hope you liked that little skit with George dishing it out to the Prime Minister in the House of Commons. I put it together while you were all singing about Jerusalem. It was easy. A piece of cake. Did you find it really funny? If so, I hope you didn’t have an accident.” Beth had her head in her hands. Ted’s shoulders were shaking.
The screens then showed a happy young toddler George running around on a lawn and then George scoring a goal for his school football team. Buster’s voice continued over shots of George wearing surgical scrubs in a busy hospital and then George and Maeve riding a camel together, doing the twist down a track in the Hindu Kush and sailing on the Norfolk Broads. “Nice speech, Scaley! Just one correction. George did not fall in love with Maeve at first sight. When they met, he was terrified of her. She ran the hospital like a bloody boot camp. But George thought she had a great chassis and got the hots for her.” The congregation were now all openly laughing. Beth was sobbing. Buster’s tone then changed. His words floated over scenes of George in the room where he had died just a few days before. George was laughing, slurping his tea, dunking digestive biscuits, looking out from the screen wagging his finger, making a toast with a glass of cider and lastly, snoozing with a smile on his face. “So I say ‘goodbye,’ George. You were my best friend. It was a right bundle of laughs knowing you, even if it was only for three hundred and forty-one days. My time with you was much better than a cold wet sock in winter. You taught me and my pals so much. You’re our hero. You will ….” There was an audible hum. “Be…..” The hum again. “Missed, George.” The hum again. “Goodbye.”
Anyone looking into the White Horse pub an hour or two later would have noticed that, for a wake, it was a surprisingly happy event. This was probably because, without realising, the mourners were talking more about Buster than they were about George. That would have been just fine by George. Someone observed that Buster clearly hadn’t accessed a guide to funeral decorum if such a thing existed out there in cyberspace.
‘A Piece of Cake’ is a short novel in fifteen parts written by Robin Coupland. It tells the story an old man who befriends an artificial intelligence. The relationship brings happiness and hope.