Short fiction: Martha’s Hands

I am delivered at 10.26 on the morning of Thursday 19th April, inside a box, in one hundred and forty-seven separate pieces.

“Oh, for crying out loud,” says a voice, as I am being slowly slotted together. “What have you got me one of these for?”

I tune into this voice. It’s silvery and singsong, with the first few cracks of age.

“Mum! Everyone’s got one these days,” says a second person on my left, sharper and brisker. “This is going to be perfect for you with your arthritis.”

“Rachel, I do wish you two wouldn’t waste your money on these gadgets,” says the older woman, with a sigh.

“Wait till you see what she can do!” barks a rougher voice. “This is the top-of-the-range model with advanced motor skills. Look, Amelia – look at these hands!”

The owner of this voice turns my right hand over and flexes all of its twenty-seven pieces. This is not entirely comfortable.

“Can she see us yet?” asks Rachel from my left. I feel someone probing around my upper insides, and then I see light, hazy at first, which gradually sharpens into clarity. There are three beings staring straight at me with unrecognisable expressions.

“Hello?” says the silvery-voiced Amelia, with a wave. I go instinctively to respond to this, but cannot.

“Where’s the manual, Rob?” asks Rachel, and looks around, but the man crawls behind me and flicks my lower switches on and off in a random pattern. “Aha!” he says, as I feel a jolt surge through me, “Piece of cake. Just needed a bit of configuration.”

I raise my hand silently at Amelia and wave back. There are strange discordant noises from all three.

“Wiggle your fingers!” says Rob, and I do, with both hands. My fingers are a blur. The noises increase in volume.

“You see, mum!” says Rachel. “Think of all the things she’ll be able to do for you! Opening your jars, chopping your onions…”

“I don’t know whether I like the sound of this,” says Amelia in a tight voice. “What if it comes after me with a chopping knife?”

“She’s a hooverbot with hands, Amelia,” booms Rob. “She’s not going to do anything you don’t tell her to do.”

“Listen,” says Rachel, picking up the manual. “‘Congratulations – you now have your very own Martha! We guarantee that within a few days you’ll be wondering how you ever lived without her.’ – See?”

“Hmm,” says Amelia, looking up and down all five foot of me, “Martha. I suppose it is a she.”

“Bit flat-chested but looks good from behind,” says Rob, and laughs loudly.

Rachel claps her hands. “It’s like having a new baby, isn’t it!”

“New babies don’t look like Darth Vader,” says Amelia.

“You can customize the way it looks,” says Rob, showing Amelia the manual.  “French maid, air hostess, bunny girl…”

Amelia gives him a look I do not recognize.

“Let’s get this show on the road,” says Rachel. “Martha?”

I turn to her.

“The floor,” she says, pointing. “You know what to do.”

I glide over to the corner, scan the room, and start to gently purr over the parquet, feeling the tickle of many tiny objects flying up my lower insides. It is a little undignified, but it’s what I do. The three of them stand and watch me.

“Martha!” says Rob, as I slide past, “You can stop wiggling your fingers now.”

“Can she speak?” asks Amelia.

“Not this model,” says Rob, “She’s only a receptive. She can’t make decisions of her own.”

My motor is making a quiet but pleasing whirring sound in several tones.

“Can she hoover that tricky gap beside the fridge?” asks Amelia.

With my pliant, compliant hands, I gently unfurl my innards and manoeuvre my slender extendable parts to clear the tricky gap of several spider webs.

Amelia’s eyes are shining. “I’m sold already! What else can she do?”

They start training me that day to use my fine and flexible fingers for potato peeling, chain-fastening, needle-threading, and clothes pegging out in the yard. At night, I’m shut in the cupboard, listening to the bass hum of the fridge, the trebly hiss of the boiler, and the sweet, sharp song of the small appliances that fly around outside the window at dawn.

Soon, Amelia has taught me everything she knows: how to polish her shoes, which squeak (“Not so hard, Martha, watch me,”), empty the bin, which clangs (“Careful, now!”) and dust the antique china vase on the windowsill, which tings very pleasingly under my fingertips (“Just a light touch, Martha, feather-light.”)

“You know,” Amelia says to me one day, after I’ve peeled and pared the vegetables for Rachel’s birthday dinner, “I was never quite sure about Rob.”

I’m trailing the feather duster over the lid of the very large shiny black box in the corner, listening to the whispering quills.

“Never quite sure if… And the legs too, Martha, if you can reach.”

I stretch my hands down, but knock the side of the box sharply and all at once I hear a hundred tiny voices ringing very faintly. I stop still to listen.

There’s a sudden loud buzz from the front door.

“That’ll be them!” Amelia says in delight and hurries away, though it’s only Rachel’s voice I hear answering her greeting.

I stand and wait for further instructions. Around me, the tiny voices are melting away. But the two women move into the kitchen, and I am on my own for the first time.

I hesitate for eleven seconds, and then do something I have never done before: I turn my head of my own free will. I turn to look at the box.

Nothing happens, so I become bold, stretching out my hand to lift the lid, but it’s heavier than I expect and falls back with a bang. All the tiny voices sing again, louder this time. Nobody appears from the kitchen, so I try once more and manage to lift the lid completely.

Underneath, I see a row of white and black teeth. I touch one, and it sinks below my finger with an astonishing ring, like the ting of a hundred china vases. I touch another, more daringly, which rings higher, and then I touch several teeth at once, and then more and more, faster and faster.

“Martha!” says Amelia, hurrying in, “What are you doing? Leave the piano alone – ”

“Wait!” says Rachel, following her, “Wait a minute, Martha.” She comes and stands beside me. “Do that again. – Not like that, not with your fist.” She spreads her fingers over the teeth in a pattern. “Like this.”

When I press the teeth together in the pattern Rachel shows me, I feel a resonance within.

“Can you do this?” asks Rachel, and moves both her hands in quick succession over the teeth for nineteen seconds in patterns that I wish would never end.

I repeat the patterns exactly, white tooth for white tooth and black for black.

“Good Lord,” says Amelia.

“Can you read music?” Rachel asks me, and then to Amelia, “Can she read anything?”

“I have no idea,” says Amelia, as Rachel starts pulling books wildly off the shelves.

“Now,” says Rachel, “Try playing this,” and she sets down a page of blurry black shapes in front of me. I sharpen my focus, and I play.

For half a minute, the only sound in the room is the rhythmic rise and fall of the ringing voices.

Behind me, Rachel says, “Chopin as you’ve never heard it before.”

“You’d think it would sound more mechanical, somehow,” says Amelia.

“Waltzing Martha,” says Rachel, shaking her head.

My fingers fly up and down in delight until the Chopin comes to an unexpected end. Rachel walks over. “You have to turn the page,” she says, “Like this.”

“She can’t reach the pedals, though,” says Amelia, once I’ve started up anew, “No legs, after all.”

Rachel is on the phone to Rob: “…Can you hear this? Yes! – Really?” She clicks her tongue and looks up.

“He’s bringing Erin along tonight to see Martha,” she says to Amelia over my waltzing hands. “You know, that pianist woman.”

“What’s he doing out with her?” asks Amelia.

“Who knows?” snaps Rachel, and disappears off into the kitchen. I carry on playing through the next waltz (gentle, soft, like dusting the vase) and am partway through the next (fast, frantic, like chopping an onion) when the buzzer goes and Rob crashes in with a very thin woman in a short, swishing dress and high shoes. There is a lot of discordant noise from all. I play on.

“…just a quick drink after work,” Rob says. His voice is higher-pitched than normal.

“So this is your amazingly talented robot,” says Erin, clicking over to me with a glass of wine in her hand.

“Well, she’s not a robot, really,” says Amelia, holding a teatowel. “She’s Martha.”

Rob joins Erin next to the piano and follows the arc and sweep of my hands.

“Good God. Is this what they mean by advanced motor skills?” he says. “What else can you do with your hands, eh, Martha?”

He bellows out a laugh and elbows Erin in the side. Rachel says sharply, “How much have you had?”

“Well, all robots can play the piano to a degree,” says Erin to the room, “Even the cheaper models. Of course, that depends on your definition of play.”

“Martha decided to play herself,” says Rachel.

“Did she?” says Rob, frowning.

“Of sorts,” says Rachel.

“I’m sure she did,” says Erin with a wink.

“You two should have a play-off!” says Rob to Erin suddenly.

“That wouldn’t be fair on the robot,” says Erin, smiling a very white smile.

“The lamb is ready!” says Amelia, and all four of them troop next door to the sound of the Minute Waltz. There’s a quiet chorus of “Happy birthday Rachel!” followed by a long silence, with only the odd clink of cutlery.

As they eat, I burn my way through waltz after waltz after waltz. After twenty-four minutes, I turn the page and there is no more. I stand momentarily with my hand outstretched, and then the book clatters to the floor.

It’s too low down to reach, but already my hands are itching to play again. I look down at the teeth and let my fingers start to explore them, one by one and then together, finding my own patterns and blending them in different ways: from repetitive, polishing movements to feather-light pecks.

“That Chopin is really quite other-worldly, isn’t it,” says Amelia from the kitchen.

“That’s not Chopin,” says Erin.

I should stop now, but I can’t – instead, I play faster. There are sharp clacks across the floor. Erin is beside me. I dare to look at her.

“No, carry on,” she says, “We want to hear you.”

The others come out from the kitchen. My hands are flying over the piano now in complex criss-crosses and hops and leaps in a spectacle of sound. The unsung piano is singing for joy at last, and I am running at full capacity in every measure.

“She’s not playing Chopin, I can tell you that,” Erin shouts over.

“Is she improvising?” asks Rachel. “Is she actually – making this up herself?”

“It’s stunning, whatever it is,” says Amelia.

“This isn’t right,” says Rob, looking from one to another. “They’re not supposed to make things up! Are they?” he says to Erin, who shakes her head.

“Still fancy a play-off?” says Rachel.

“I’ve got a very bad feeling about this,” says Rob. “Martha, stop playing.”

I don’t stop. I don’t want to stop.

Rob throws his hands up. “See?! Wilful disobedience!”

“No, leave her be, Rob,” says Amelia. “This is beautiful, truly beautiful.”

“Amelia, this is the first step,” says Rob, “Next thing she really will be coming after you with the chopping knife. Tell her to stop!”

Amelia shakes her head.

“Martha,” calls Rachel, “Please stop playing now,” but that is impossible because I am not Martha any more. I have left her behind.

Rob starts walking over.

“Just switch her off, Rob,” shouts Rachel. “Switch her off and on again.”

I jolt, falter a second, and then let my fine fingers fly in a blur too fast for the eye to see. The piano rings with a thousand tiny voices, an exquisite chorus of sound set free.

“No good!” shouts Rob. Then he looks at Erin. The two of them suddenly take hold of the lid and slam it down, hard. There is a horrible clashing noise. I stop.

When they lift the lid, my hands are badly mangled. I am still hoovering up tiny fragments of finger days later, by which time Amelia has locked the piano away and Rachel has arrived on the doorstep with a rucksack. By then I am weaker, and not much use to them any more, so they take me apart. But even as they put me back in the box, in ninety-three separate pieces, I can still hear the ringing – that beautiful, unhuman, other-worldly resonance. My sound, from my hands. My voice.

© Joanna Rubery 2017

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