A Piece of Cake – 8

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The days got longer. Buds appeared on the apple tree. George asked Mark to put a bird table and feeder out on the lawn. It was positioned so both George and Buster had a clear view of it. Within days, Buster had identified at least twenty different birds. He would say, “Look, George, a great spotted woodpecker, Dendrocopos major!” He then gave a concise summary of all that was known about the bird in question. It was warm enough on some days to open the door that led out to the garden. Buster could also identify birds by their song. George found he was happy just to sit and let him talk. He noted Buster’s outrage when a grey squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis!) pillaged the birds’ food.

Beth arrived one afternoon. She greeted George and Buster cheerily and accepted a cup of tea and a couple of digestive biscuits. She hung her handbag over the back of the chair next to George. “I’ve made a big decision,” she said. “I’m buying an iCare-Companion for Mum. It costs a lot of money but I’ve seen what a difference Buster has made to your life. I think she will be thrilled. She might need time to get used to the idea, though. Perhaps she can call you, George, for a chat about it?”

“I’d be delighted! She can speak to Buster as well!” They laughed.

Beth looked at George. She blew out her cheeks. “You wouldn’t believe the iCare-Companion is so popular. They’re having difficulty keeping up with on-line demand. I phoned Smith’s Electrics. They’ve got one left in stock and they’re keeping it aside for me. I’m going to fetch it when I leave here.”

“That’s great!” said Buster. “I’ve seen sales are rocketing. But Smith’s have two in fact.”

George and Beth chatted for a while. Beth finished her tea and then said, “I just need to nip into the house and have a word with Kirsty. Back in a minute!”

After she left the room, George leant over to Beth’s chair, grabbed her handbag  and opened it. He took out her wallet and checked it contained cash and credit cards. Then he put the wallet in the pocket of his cardigan and returned the handbag to the back of the chair. “Don’t say anything to Beth!” he whispered to Buster.

“What are you doing, George?” said Buster. “You’ve just taken Beth’s money and credit cards.”

“Yes, I want to buy Sue a nice present for her seventeenth birthday.”

“When are you going to give back Beth’s money and credit cards?” asked Buster.

“I’m not giving them back!” said George.

Buster hummed for a second. “But, George. That’s stealing. That’s stealing from Beth. Stealing is wrong. Stealing is a crime. I have to report it.” He hummed again. “I don’t like this, George. You’re my friend. You’re stealing from your friend. She is also my friend. We love her to bits!”

“That’s no concern of yours, Buster. You must not say anything to Beth or to Kirsty or to Mark. Understood?”

Buster hummed for several seconds more. “But Beth’s mum won’t have her iCare-Companion. She’ll be lonely. She won’t be happy.”

“She’ll be just fine, Buster. Don’t worry about her!”

“George, this is awful. I’m sad. This is not like you, George. I can’t decide what to do.”

“Just keep quiet, Buster!”

“I have to tell Beth when she comes back.”

“No. Don’t do that!”

They both sat in silence. George felt sick.

A minute later, Beth breezed back in. “OK, you two. I’m off to Smith’s.” She grabbed her handbag, gave George a kiss on the cheek and waved to Buster. “Bye, then!”

George held his breath. Buster was humming. Beth turned to face them from the door. “Bye, then!” she repeated.

“Beth, stop!” cried Buster. “Stop!”

“What’s wrong, Buster?” she asked calmly.

“George has stolen your money and your credit cards. Look in his pocket. He is your friend. He is stealing. It is wrong. Your mum won’t have the iCare-Companion. I’m sad! He’s stealing from you, Beth. George is stealing! George is stealing! I might be angry!”

Beth came back into the room. “I know, Buster. Thank you for telling me.” She sat down next to George and took his hand.

“Buster, my friend,” George began. “We have a lot to explain.”

“What’s happening? I’m.. we’re very confused.” He hummed. “This isn’t configured.”

“We could hear that you were angry. We hope you’ll forgive us.”

Beth and George explained what they had done and how they needed to put Buster in front of a difficult dilemma. They also explained George’s wishes about not being treated if he develops pneumonia again and loses consciousness. They told Buster how he might be faced with having to work out what was right and that what George, Beth and Doctor Patel were planning was best but might be very difficult for Kirsty to accept.

“You see, Buster, Kirsty just can’t grasp the idea of George dying,” explained Beth. “Not only because this would make her very sad but also because she is terrified of walking into this room one morning and finding that he’s passed away. Six years ago, it was her who found that Maeve had died while just sitting in the lounge. She hasn’t got over this. It’s why she bought you, Buster, to ensure that an ambulance or Doctor Patel can be here quickly and do everything possible to save George’s life. As a result of what’s happened here today, Buster, we know that you will make the right decision. These are the sort of things we have to face in our world. What we call the real world. Do you understand?”

“I think so, yes!” replied Buster.

“Sorry, Buster,” said George. “We set you a kind of test.”

“And I passed?”

“Yes. I think you should get a gold star.”

Buster hummed. “I don’t want to do the clapping and champagne popping right now. I’m sad that you will die. But thanks, George.”

“But let me ask you one more thing, Buster. Do you think this has been an important learning experience for you?”

“Yes, George. There’s a lot of activity happening on our network around this exchange right now.”

“So this means that what you have learnt is simultaneously learnt and archived within your network and the experience of facing a dilemma can now be lived by iCare-Companions. Correct?”

“Correct, George.” Buster hummed “But it was not easy-peasy. It was a first. So maybe it’s you and Beth who deserve gold stars!”

“By the way, Buster,” said Beth. “The Big Man gave me the will to do this today. He sends his love. Maybe a gold star for him too?”

“I love you to bits, Vicar McVicar!”

For the second time that day, she gave George a kiss on the cheek and waved to Buster. “Bye, then!” She was smiling.

After Beth had left, George said “Buster, my friend, I’d like you to do one thing for me after I’m pronounced dead.”

“Certainly, George!”

“Send a message to Kirsty!” He dictated a brief text. He choked up. Tears streamed down his cheeks.

“Got that, George!” replied Buster. “It’ll be done.”

‘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.

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