:: Article

Excerpt: The Red Men

By Matthew De Abaitua.

I was brushing my daughter’s blonde hair, gently and methodically, taking pleasure in the ordering of the morning tangle. Iona stood patiently at the window, gazing at the busy Hackney street. She blinked at the faces of the pedestrians, each one discontent in its own way. Under a grey London sky, they stumbled and dawdled and bustled against one another, stragglers in the human race. I concentrated on the long stroke of the brush, each pass spinning golden thread. We did not talk. She was fascinated with the street and I was intent upon my task of turning her blonde cloud into flat sheets of sunny day. I adjusted my position to brush the underside, drawing out a sheaf upon my palm. Tiny zephyrs had whirled the precious thread into small clumps of intertwined locks. Gently, I unpicked them.

In five minutes, I would finish brushing her hair and then we would put on our coats, Iona would choose a doll to take to nursery, and that would be the end of this peaceful moment together. The collar of the day would slip over my neck, the leash jerk taut, and it would drag me to work, through meetings and out the other side, returning home for the routine of teatime then bedtime then television. And just before sleep took me, the leash would be unhooked, the collar removed, and for a minute I would wonder where the day had gone. Close my eyes. Nothing there.

Iona said, “Daddy, what is that?”

A small group was moving with authority and purpose through the pedestrians. It was the police, specifically an armed response unit, strapped up in tight black Kevlar armour and bearing sub-machine guns. We were used to the police, Iona wasn’t pointing at them. No, it was the tall figure in their midst that had caught her eye, a robot that was at least seven feet tall. It resembled an oversized artist’s manikin covered in a skin of kid leather, with fully articulated legs and arms that ended in large catcher’s mitts. It was not entirely steady on its flat feet. The police jogged to keep up with its loping stride. The robot passed by the window and glanced our way. I saw a pair of mournful blue eyes set into its suede ball of a head. Their expression was somewhere between that of a hound and a martyred saint. St Catherine of Sienna showing the ecstatic agony of her stigmata. The Princess Of Hearts ruefully confessing her suffering.

Again, Iona asked me what it was.

“That is a Dr Easy,” I replied.

“Why?”

“It’s a robot. You know what a robot is?” I helped her into her duffle coat.

“Why is it a doctor?”

“It helps people. Sometimes people get mad. It makes them better.”

“Why do people get mad?”

“They just do.”

It was time for us to go. I opened the front door, breaking the seal on our little world. Iona clamped her hands over her ears. A police helicopter hung in the air, its rotor blades drowning out the clamour of the main road. Policewomen were sealing off the street, unwinding strips of yellow tape. The shops were being evacuated and everyone was arguing about it. Customers halfway through their manicures were led indignant from the nails and hair place. At the internet shack, armed police threatened the Somalians who were refusing to log off and leave. A pair of builders in plaster-spattered boiler suits sauntered from Yum-Yum; they refused to leave until their food was ready. As each establishment emptied, the police put down metal crowd barriers to close it off. We milled outside the off license, displacing the street drinkers and the meeting of their anti-council. What was going on? Did anyone know? Was it terrorists? Had an al-Qaida cell metasized again? The police kept on coming, dispersing us, moving us back. There was an armed man holed up in a house, said the constables. Shots had already been fired although none of us had heard a thing. Snipers, as graceful as burglars, skipped over the rooftops and took up positions behind chimneystacks. I looked back toward my house but could no longer see it. A blue tarpaulin had been set up across the street and there, huddled behind a barricade, was the armed unit. The Dr Easy sat cross-legged amongst them, nodding as the captain explained their intentions.

This was only the second time I had encountered a robot. The sight of them made me anxious. Specifically, they reminded me of the time when I was unwell and susceptible to anxiety-induced hallucinations, distortions of perspective and the like. A time when the blinkers were off. When the screens were down. In the five years since then, a programme of sanity and moderation – a three-pint maximum, early nights and no weekend newspapers – had restored my powers.

I wriggled my hand free of Iona’s grasp and checked my pulse. It was normal. I am normal. Her question came back to me: Daddy, why do people get mad? Well, my darling, drugs don’t help. And life can kick the reason out of you, that’s the truth. You can be kneecapped right from the outset. Even little girls and boys your age are getting mad through bad love. When life falls short of your expectations, when your dreams are picked up by fate, considered, and then dashed upon the rocks, then you get mad. You just do. Your only salvation is to live to fulfil the dreams of others; the dreams of a child like you, my darling girl, my puppy pie, or the dreams of an employer, like Monad.

The robot sat patiently through a briefing by the tactical arms unit, which was quite unnecessary, as it would already have extracted all the information it needed from their body language. Dr Easy let the policemen give orders because it appreciated how much pleasure it gave them. It listened with great interest, its deep blue eyes intent upon the police captain.

The first time I met a Dr Easy, I scrabbled away from it in fear. Subtle, inhuman intelligence had gone into choice of body for the robot. Its yielding cover of soft natural materials was designed to comfort us but its immense size acknowledged that it did not belong here. It was both parent and stranger. You wanted to lay your head against its chest. You wanted to beat it to death. Your contrary urges were pacified by its eyes, two reservoirs each holding a fathomless love for humanity.

Slowly, Dr Easy stood up. The policeman crouched and crawled for cover at its feet. The crowd gasped at its courage and fell silent. The robot held up its enormous right palm at shoulder height, a gesture of peace to the mysterious gunman. Its left hand was arranged with similar precision – the palm of an open hand facing forward, the five fingers slightly bent. It was the symbolic gesture of the Varada mudrā. Dr Easy used the mudras of the Buddhist deities because they were suitably instructive and firm, in keeping with the robot’s deliberate poise. Maintaining this gesture of charity and compassion, Dr Easy took stately steps across the road toward the gunman’s house.

The Red Men is available to pre-order here.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Born in Liverpool in 1971, De Abaitua studied under Malcolm Bradbury and Rose Tremain at the University of East Anglia and worked as Will Self’s amanuensis before joining The Idler magazine as Deputy Editor (he remains Editor at Large) and was also Literary Editor of Esquire magazine. He has contributed to a number of anthologies including the bestselling Disco Biscuits (Sceptre) and Retro Retro (Serpent’s Tail), and has reviewed for and contributed widely to The Guardian and The Observer, among others. He wrote and presented a documentary series on British Science Fiction for Channel 4, and is now the Editor of Channel 4′s film review site, where he launched the internet-only film review TV show, Movie Rush, which is at the cutting edge of internet media. He also contributed creatively to marketing strategy for Big Brother, The Simpsons, Ali G and other programmes.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, July 23rd, 2007.