Robot Christmas Day 2: “The New Tradition” by Matt Hill

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On the second day of Robot Christmas, our machine overlords gave to me: “The New Tradition,” an original short story by Matt Hill about how Christmas traditions can change with tragedy…and time. Matt Hill was born in 1984 and grew up in Tameside, Greater Manchester. After completing a journalism degree at Cardiff University, he trained as a copywriter. He now lives and works in London. Angry Robot will publish his second novel, the future thriller Graft, in February 2016. You can find Matt on Twitter @matthewhill.

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The New Tradition

Every Christmas Eve since the biological attack, they let me visit Nan to see what was left of her.

When you stepped through the airlock into her little terraced house it was hard to believe she was quietly disintegrating in there at all. Despite the containment ring and manned perimeter, the house still smelled of her, and all the trinkets – lurid porcelain, “seeing crystals”, wooden crucifixes, one of her handwritten signs in the hall reading “Abandon coats all ye who enter” – still signalled her eccentricities.

It was only when you looked closely that the clues were there, and each year they grew more painful for me to recognise. It was a gradual erosion of her, really. A collapsing from the inside that revealed itself in bruisy-looking marks and hair loss, speech and mobility impairments. Eventually, we knew, the attack would leave her a husk.

Owing to residual contaminants, they made you wear an expensive suit to go inside, which made skin contact with Nan impossible. Our annual hug was a rustling, barriered thing. But if I’m rational, that was understandable. I might easily carry things back to the city, after all.

The worst thing of all was that Nan couldn’t see my face – not even my eyes. All she had to go off was my voice, my name, and the fragments of some relevant memory she might or might not assemble in time to render me properly. She only saw in me her reflection, puzzled and diminished. And one year soon enough, I knew she would struggle to recognise that, too.

 

The Christmas things changed, I took Nan some fake flowers for her mantelpiece. Perhaps it was stupid – on previous evidence, it was unlikely she’d recognise what flowers were by now – and I remember standing in the sterile antechamber of her hall feeling cold and resentful that she wouldn’t hold them to her nose and identify them. I remember the suit being much too small. And I remember telling my partner before I went inside: “If this ever happens to me, finish me off with a pillow.”

The locks pinged. The airlock went. The smell through my filter was rich and familiar. Dismal as it was, Nan’s place was a kind of home, and simply being there erased the year elapsed.

I found Nan sitting in her chair. The carers had put her in a Santa hat, which had nearly fallen off. I laughed, even if the scene was so sad I could’ve cried.

“Hiya Nan,” I said. “It’s me.”

Her eyes dallied then settled on the flowers.

“I know you liked – like – these,” I said.

She tilted her face fractionally.

“It’s me, Nan,” I said. “Grandson number one.”

Her gaze snapped to the voids where my eyes should have been.

“Over there?” I said, trying to ignore her look of confusion. You had to speak carefully because the filter distorted your voice. “Let’s try the top,” I said. “That’s where I imagined you keeping them.”

I rustled over and put the flowers down and fetched a glass of water for the vase. Every illusion had to hold.

This done, I sat on the floor before her. Nan watched dumbly as I crossed my legs. I said to her, “How are you, then?”

And she pointed to the Christmas tree.

“Nan?”

She pointed again.

I looked at the tree and saw a single gift. It was smartly wrapped, the paper bright and taping neat.

“Did you do that?” I asked. “Is that for me?”

She didn’t respond, so I went to the tree and slid out the gift. It was heavy. I turned it over to find a tag on it. It read, To Nan.

I put the gift down. The paper stayed taut.

“Who brought this?” I asked.

She pointed at me. No hesitation.

I swallowed thickly. “Are you sure?” I frowned, and was grateful she couldn’t see it. Then, with some relief, I reminded myself that anyone coming in here would resemble me in this suit – and that many of the carers called her Nan. I laughed. It’d only take someone with a similar build.

“Couldn’t have been me, Nan,” I said. “You daft thing.”

And with that I thought her eyes went glassy.

 

In the weeks and months after that Christmas catch-up, I thought of Nan more than usual. Her loneliness needled me, I suppose. But soon enough the new year brought its raft of distractions, and the strangeness of our meeting – the image of her in that silly hat, the instant clarity of her response – grew fuzzier. Inevitably I questioned my recollection of it; wondered if I’d reframed the whole meeting to make myself feel better about abandoning her to an illness we’d never understand.

Later in the summer I married my partner in a ceremony watched live by friends all over the globe, and in the stillest moments I wished Nan was able to join in.

After the honeymoon, when autumn arrived and the government’s post-attack scheme visibly reshaped the city around us, I’d completely forgotten what had happened in Nan’s little terrace the Christmas before.

 

The call was out of the blue. I was brain-deep in a holosession with some friends hiking in New Zealand, whose body rigs allowed me to manipulate their body cameras as I wanted to. The link wasn’t great, but I was as lost in the scenery as they were.

My partner called up the stairs, which sounded in-session like a battlecry emanating from deep in a nearby valley. With some frustration I pulled the link, climbed out of the bath and quickly towelled off the biggest gobs of sensory gel.

“Who is it?” I shouted.

“One of your nan’s carers, I think.”

My stomach went. I bounded downstairs and grabbed the handset. “Hello?”

“Is that—”

“Yes. What’s happened?”

“Oh, my little man.”

I dropped the phone, gripped the bannister.

It wasn’t a carer speaking. It was Nan.

 

I phoned the security administrator and visited the perimeter guardhouse and tried to get in to see Nan early. I stopped short of saying I had a terminal illness, knowing that they might easily attribute it to my time spent inside the house. In any case, they weren’t impressed with my reasoning, never mind my pleading. Christmas it would have to be. No compromises.

Still, I didn’t give up. In the following days I tried calling them on the hour, every hour. To try and explain that Nan had contacted me, and sounded more lucid than she had in years. In living memory, in fact.

“Sorry,” was all they told me. Even if it was true, they weren’t admitting anything.

But I knew. I knew.

 

Christmas Eve came, eventually. The route to Nan’s was lined with processions of kids with candles in hollowed oranges. Through the cordon, I discovered the security firm had updated their suits sometime in the last twelve months, and that their new masks had a clear faceplate.

Inside Nan’s house, I braced myself to see her, wilted and curling inwards, on her chair.

I opened the lounge door.

Nan span from the tree. Span, that is – not turned. I blinked at her. She looked fuller. She actually smiled.

“Nan?”

She nodded. “Hello, you.” In her hands was the gift: same shape, same paper, but faded and torn. The tape was flapping; it was clear she’d rewrapped it.

“For tomorrow,” she said. Slowly but definitively.

I frowned. “You’ll save it for tomorrow?”

She nodded. “It’s a new tradition.”

I went to her. I took the gift. I turned it over. The weight was there. Inside the paper was a smooth orb, drab grey and matt in texture. I’d never seen anything like it.

The tag still read, To Nan.

I blanched, I’ll admit. It made me feel watery, weak.

I watched her. Instead of rocking back, she leaned forward. Her eyes engaged mine. She said, “It is a two-way street, this house.”

And only now do I know what she meant.

 

When I got home, harried and tired, my partner was waiting up.

“Another year,” she said. “She’s doing so well, you know. Battling on.”

I tried to smile. I said, “She was incredible today. I can’t explain. She’s improving. Not getting worse.”

My partner smiled sympathetically at what she thought was my wishful thinking. She put a hand on my shoulder and nodded to a tatty envelope on the sofa. “That came for you.”

I opened it. Inside was a packing slip. At the top was my name, written neatly in biro, along with “Thank you and merry Christmas”. Beneath that ran a receipt of purchase for an impossibly expensive object whose title was inscrutable. I read on in confusion: the slip said the order was placed thirty years into the future, and delivered to a redacted address on Christmas Eve two years ago.

“Junk mail,” I said. But my skin was prickling, because I recognised the handwriting.

At the bottom was a scan of the gift tag that went with the delivery.

It read, To Nan.

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