Wednesday, 25 December 2019

Christmas Echoes

by Dawn Knox

sherry

Gwen tipped the steaming contents of the foil tray on to a plate and carried it to the dining room.
Christmas dinner for one. 

She sat down in her usual place and eyed her guest on the other side of the table.

“Alexa!” Gwen said and waited until the whirling green and blue lights stopped spinning around the top of the Voice-Controlled Intelligent Personal Assistant.

“Merry Christmas,” Gwen said, holding her glass up as if toasting the unit.

The clipped, disembodied voice of Alexa rang out, “Merry Christmas and a happy new year.” The blue and green lights flashed and died. 

Gwen was about to eat Christmas dinner alone in the company of an electronic gadget.

She sighed and picked up her fork. There was no disguising the fact that this was a frozen Christmas dinner. Nothing like the ones she’d enjoyed years ago at her mother’s table with her sister, Fiona.
Three women determined to enjoy Christmas without the man of the house who’d deserted them all.
Mother’s table now belonged to Gwen, along with the house – their mother having slipped away several months ago. Fiona had taken her share of the money and left after a senseless argument over their mother’s favourite bracelet.  

So many times, Gwen had picked up her phone to call Fiona but pride had stopped her. 

She hadn’t started the argument. 

She hadn’t begun the name-calling. 

It was up to Fiona to call her and apologise. 

Gwen wondered if Fiona was alone and lonely today, just like her. 

“Alexa!” Gwen said, more to hear the sound of a voice rather than because she thought she’d receive a sensible answer. She waited for the lights to indicate the unit was listening, “Where’s Fiona?”

“Hmm,” Alexa said, “I’m sorry, I don’t know that one.”

“You and me both, said Gwen sadly.

She pulled her cracker and put on the paper hat. 

Gwen sighed. She’d never spent Christmas Day on her own before. Alexa’s silky voice might sound human but it was a poor substitute for a real person.

“Alexa… I’m lonely,” Gwen said. 

The blue and green lights flashed.

“I’m sorry you’re feeling that way. Sometimes talking to a friend, listening to music or even taking a walk can help. I hope you feel better soon,” Alexa said and the blue and green lights faded. 

The sympathetic words sounded hollow. But that was hardly surprising. Alexa wasn’t programmed to have emotions.

“Alexa!” Gwen paused, “What should I do?”

“Hmm, I don’t know that one,” Alexa replied. 

Well, of course the unit wouldn’t know what to do. It didn’t even know what was wrong. 

But Gwen did. 

 “Alexa… Should I apologise to Fiona?”

“Sorry, I’m not sure.”

Gwen sighed. 

“Alexa… I wish you were a person.”

“Humans are cool and fascinating but I like myself just the way I am,” Alexa replied.
Who programmed the answers into Alexa? Gwen wondered. Everything the unit said was delivered in the same, expressionless tone. Perhaps one day, lonely people would really sit down to eat with robots who would be sophisticated enough to respond like a real person. But not yet…

“Alexa!” Gwen waited for a few seconds then asked, “What will happen tomorrow?”

“Tomorrow’s date is Thursday, the twenty-sixth of December twenty nineteen.”

Gwen sighed. Well, it was a personal assistant attached to the Internet, not a fortune teller. If only she’d telephoned Fiona before Christmas. She’d got as far as opening her contacts and finding Fiona’s number in the phone but she’d lost her nerve and hadn’t continued. 

Why was it so hard to apologise?

“I’m sorry,” she said aloud. Perhaps the more she practised, the easier it would be to say when it counted.

But suppose she telephoned Fiona and she wouldn’t accept her apology?

“I’m sorry,” Gwen said again, louder, her voice echoing in the stillness. But simply saying it aloud wasn’t the same as apologising to a person.

“Alexa!” Gwen said, “I’m sorry.”

“Don’t worry about it,” Alexa replied, “Calling Fiona Blackburn.”

For a second, Gwen wondered if she’d heard correctly. She hadn’t asked Alexa to call her sister. Had she? 

Had she said it without realising?

She was about to tell Alexa to cancel the phone call, when the dialling tone stopped.

“Hello?... Hello?” The tinny voice which came out of the unit belonged to Fiona. 

 “Hello?” Gwen whispered. During the next few seconds of silence, Gwen closed her eyes, prepared to hear a click as Fiona cut the call. 

 ‘Oh, Gwen! It’s so good to hear your voice! I can’t tell you how many times I’ve picked up the phone to call you…”

Green and blue lights flashed on the top of the unit, as if Alexa were celebrating.  

About the author

Dawn enjoys writing in different genres and has had romances, speculative fiction, sci-fi, humorous and women’s fiction published in magazines, anthologies and books. She’s also had two plays about World War One performed internationally. Her current work in progress is a story set in Bletchley Park during World War Two. You can follow her here on https://dawnknox.com , Facebook here DawnKnoxWriter or on Twitter here https://twitter.com/SunriseCalls 

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