Charles Edward Tuckett's Yuletide Message



It was the second glass of wine that was making Charles Edward Tuckett reminisce. In his twilight years at the corporation he’d felt quite proud to be one of the silver surfers who had, against type, taken to the new technology. He liked dropping his reading glasses onto his nose, squinting at the screen. The machines then had been comfortingly boxy, beige like the walls of his dentist. They whirred when they were first turned on, then beeped, before a flowing screen of runic code gave way to his “desktop” — like the Wizard of Oz unwittingly revealing himself momentarily before pulling the curtain back around.

But what was on his desk that last day, his retirement day, was different. A “docking station,” he’d been told. For laptops. Machines that came with you to meetings. He looked at it like a horse eyeing a traction engine, realizing that he only liked new technology as far as it could be tethered; after that he was no longer sure who was master and who was servant.

As the world had quickened he had thickened and slowed. There were now flaps of skin below the eyes of the face that stared back at him from the shaving mirror.

I think I’ll stop looking in mirrors,” he said to his son-in-law across the table, over a candle shaped like a snowman, a natural continuation of his inner monologue but outwardly a propos of nothing.

Is that why old men grow beards?” Jeffrey responded playfully. He’d had at least four glasses of shiraz.

Charles Edward Tuckett grunted as his daughter bustled in with the Christmas pudding, brandy-soaked flames flitting and flickering blue.

You really shouldn’t,” Charles Edward Tuckett said, surprising even himself. “All this—” and he waved a hand across the table.

Why not, Dad? It’s Christmas. Christmas is for family.”

You have Jeffrey’s family. And work. That’s more family than family.”

Wendy paused, a spoonful of gluttonous pudding between dish and plate. “What do you mean?”

You must have already had more Christmas dinners than you can stomach. And then you have to accommodate me.”

Wendy poured cream. “But what you said about work being more like family than family?”

Well, isn’t it? I spent more time there than with you and your mother. Quality time. Daylight hours. You have a sense of purpose, a sense of achievement. Family doesn’t give you that. Not in the same way.”

I like coming home to family,” Jeffrey said, “but because of what it’s a contrast to. I’m still thinking about work at home. I’m not sure I’m thinking so much of home when I’m at work.”

But what about when it’s over?” Wendy wondered. “You come home to family. How often does work remember you? Family remembers you.”

Percival remembers,” Charles Edward Tuckett said with gravity. “Wallace Percival. He was my manager, briefly. He remembers, and calls me up every Christmas. He called just a couple of days ago.”

That’s nice,” said Wendy breezily.

You must have got on well,” Jeffrey said.

Reasonably, I suppose.”

They chewed their pudding. Wendy related a story about their nieces, Jeffrey’s nieces, strictly speaking — a skiing holiday, a twisted ankle, the welfare of a hound. Jeffery was quiet, pondering. “You worked with him, you say, briefly?”

Charles Edward Tuckett dredged his mind. “A month, maybe three. He arrived to look after the south-east just before they restructured.”

And he phones you up?” Jeffrey was intrigued. “Why?”

To wish me Happy Christmas.” Charles Edward Tuckett was conscious that he’d just spat pudding in his surprise.

No. I mean, why you? You worked together for a few months out of a career of decades. There must be hundreds of people that he knew just as well or better.”

I suppose he rings lots of people over Christmas. My point was that I’m not forgotten.” He waved his spoon for emphasis.

I bet he rings at exactly the same time,” Jeffrey said.

Bang on. Five past three, December the twenty-third. Every year.”

Do you find he can’t quite recall past events? Or relate back to what you’ve talked about previously?”

Charles Edward Tuckett considered. His son-in-law had a point. But what was he suggesting? That Percival had the beginnings of dementia?

You don’t think,” “Forget it,” Wendy and Jeffrey said over each other, exchanging looks. Charles Edward Tuckett looked from one to the other, his eyebrows knotting. There was a meaning here he wasn’t quite grasping.

It’s just,” Jeffrey began, sounding as if he was regretting the conversation’s direction of travel, “it sounds very much like your Wallace Percival is a me-jah.”

A what?”

A me-jah. A bot. A program that this Wallace Percival uses to make calls and put things online. It does his social media so he doesn’t have to.”

Wendy put her hand across her father’s. “It’s not that big a deal. Lots of people use me-jahs. I do. Mainly to respond to people who tweet pictures of their dinner. But then, it’s probably their me-jahs that have put them up there to start with. We all do it.” But the old man’s shoulders had slumped.

Look,” Jeffrey said placatingly, “me-jahs work on the basis that they reproduce what you would do: they imitate you. If you’re inclined to call up old acquaintances at Christmas, then your me-jah will do that. So, Wallace Percival’s me-jah calls you up because that’s what he’d do. More wine?”

Charles Edward Tuckett through he ought not, but held his glass out anyway.

* * *

For ten years or so Charles Edward Tuckett had enjoyed his calls from Percival. Initially he’d been surprised, suspicious that Percival was meandering towards touching him for money, or inveigling him into some Ponzi scheme. But not so; it was just an old-fashioned Season’s greeting, a throwback to when people cared.

But recently, come to think of it, it tended to be Charles Edward Tuckett downloading his review of the year. He had even come to look forward to composing his monologues and ad-libs in advance. But he’d heard very little of Percival’s year. Was that just because he, Tuckett, liked to talk, or was it because Percival was, in reality, a “me-jah”?

He brooded on the matter until New Year’s Day. And then he phoned Percival.

Wallace. Charles Tuckett. I enjoyed our chat the other day; thought I’d call and wish you Happy New Year.”

The voice at the other end of the line gave away a degree of bemusement combined with pleasure at being the recipient of a call, even if wheels were clearly turning in placing the name. “Charles. Happy New Year to you.”

Wallace. I thought that I’d just correct something I said the last time we spoke.”

Charles, no need, social chit-chat.”

No. You remember I told you about Wendy, my daughter? About her children?” And thence followed an elaborate but ultimately banal story about his grandchildren, about their impending skiing holiday but the boy had twisted an ankle doing a paperchase — “Did you know they still did those, Wallace? Thought they were Victorian” — and that the girl was worried whether the dog would be alright whilst they were away. “Do you recall all that, Wallace?”

Well, I…” Wallace Percival hedged, really not sure he recalled having been told the tale. Weren’t there nieces, not grandchildren? And then, out of politeness, “Wendy… Jimmy and… what was it? Tabatha?”

I don’t have grandchildren,” Charles Edward Tuckett said coldly, common courtesy not being an issue when talking to machinery. “Wendy can’t. Medical condition. She’s barren. There is no Jimmy or Tabatha.”

Silence.

Charles?” asked Wallace Percival, confused.

Happy New Year, Percival,” Charles Edward Tuckett signed off brusquely.

* * *

Wallace Percival put the phone down slowly, carefully. He wasn’t sure what to make of Tuckett’s call. Although they had worked together only briefly he had always held him in high regard, made sure he had a number when Tuckett retired.

Should he call him back? His hand hovered near the handset. He felt he should, but the path of least resistance got the better of him.

His children had suggested that he hand his calls over to a me-jah, but he’d never wanted that. Christmas was about connecting personally. In retirement Percival had built up an extensive network for nothing but the pleasure of human interaction. That, and a background fear that his ever-increasing “senior moments” — had Tuckett told that story, or hadn’t he? — presaged oncoming dementia, and that keeping mentally active was as good a medicine as anything else on offer.

But with each passing year Percival’s Christmas call list began to look more and more demanding. He’d considered just sending cards, a round robin letter. But that just wasn’t the same and he was determined to hang on to what had become a tradition.

Still, with Tuckett off his list that would be one less call to make, his burden lifted, albeit marginally.




 



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