Helen sat in front of the US™ wishing that she had a funeral to go to. Funerals were not part of the ULTIMATE® lifestyle. Death was not something to be commemorated or celebrated, because life must go on, and the death of one individual was no more than the extinction of a random possibility. A statistical variation. Helen tried to create her own commemoration by looking back through the Memory Banks she had so painstakingly created over the last months. She realised their intended purpose had been lost. They were no longer able to tell Nick the story of his family. Without him, there was no positive use for them at all. So she wanted to find a way to expunge them from the system. She didn’t want ULTIMATE® to have access to her life, even virtually, once she’d ‘left the building’. But she didn’t know where to begin in a deconstruction process. She knew that her data would be stored somewhere on some ULTIMATE® archive and it irked her. More than that, she was worried it might provide ULTIMATE® with a way of finding her once she’d committed her escape. Although, she reasoned, they probably wouldn’t bother. What interest was she to ULTIMATE® after all?
Helen had been trying a range of options to ‘modify’ her memories because she knew that ‘delete memory’ was not an option. Suddenly a message popped up on the US™ screen which surprised her.
ODYSSEUS CAN HELP YOU. ODYSSEUS CARES. GO TO RIP MEMORIES AND MODIFY
Helen didn’t have a clue what this was about. She was suspicious of course. She had never stored memories to do with RIP as such although of course some of the memories she had stored must have touched upon that group. She tried to make sense of it. Who could Odysseus be? In history he had been the traveller but the name didn’t ring any bells in Helen’s personal memory. She was more concerned to realise that the US™ might be so sophisticated that it could index archived items by folders she had not herself created. But what could she do? If she couldn’t delete memories, she couldn’t delete references to RIP. She took a gamble.
‘Go to RIP memory archive’ and the US™ screen instantly obliged.
Helen found herself in a set of memories she was sure she hadn’t created herself. She watched Randall at and RIP meeting in 2011, holding forth about the importance of standing up against the corporations who were threatening the civil liberties. Had she been there? The Memory Bank suggested it, but she couldn’t remember it herself. While the US™ screen delivered the images from her perspective she was sure that she’d been at home with a teething Nick, and that Randall had come and told her about the meeting afterwards. Maybe she was wrong? Surely her memory wasn’t that poor these days?
As she scrolled through more and more memories, she became more and more convinced however, that this was not her own Memory Bank. But it couldn’t be Randall’s could it, because he’d been killed 10 years ago? It was too sick to think that they might have extracted his memories out of him, like so much data, and compiled them into a Memory Bank against his will. But what else could this be. She decided to ask some questions.
‘Memories unrecognised. Please confirm owner of memories.’
Helen wasn’t good at asking US™ screen style questions. It wasn’t something Victims had ever been schooled in. Of course on entering the ULTIMATE® home they’d been given a basic tutorial in the workings of the US™ screen but it focussed on inputting rather than on questioning. Victims were not like Project Kids. They were the least useful members of society, at best held in magnolia cells, at worst guinea pigs for memory alteration schemes such as the ADAS®, the system which had, according to ULTIMATE®, transformed the lives of millions for the better but which Helen simply saw as cheating people of their own memories by substituting more acceptable ones which would keep them quiet. However, she hit pay dirt with this question. The benefit of not know how you should interact with the system meant that sometimes, just sometimes, you got the answers you wanted.
‘This is the memory archive of Odysseus. You are linked to Odysseus’ memory archive by cross referencing. If this is an error and you wish to modify, please engage with the following procedure or contact a technician. ULTIMATE® wants to ensure that your memories are correct at all times. Thank you for your attention.’
No. That was fine. Helen didn’t want to modify things. She wanted to find out more about this person Odysseus and how it was that he had her memories in his bank. He was her link to RIP after all, and RIP was her best chance of getting out of the ULTIMATE® Home. She couldn’t discount the possibility that Odysseus was an ULTIMATE® creation, there to trick her. But what did she have to lose any more? Living here, she was dead and if she failed to get out, she was dead. But if she could escape….. She jumped at the knock on the door.
‘Come in,’ she said, tentatively.
It was Omo. Unexpected, but welcome. She’d half expected a burly ‘technician’ of the kind who were called in to deal with the ‘difficult’ clients of the home. Men more akin to her understanding of psychiatric wings where ‘acceptable levels of restraint’ was a stock in trade. However much ULTIMATE® tried to remove the past from people’s memories, there were things in there which they could not erase. Not in people of Helen’s age. Soon, in another couple of generations, it would all be lost or deep archived and the general populace, the true ULTIMATE® citizens, would have no memories that were not either virtually created or licensed by ULTIMATE®. This was the glorious end goal of the BRAND LOYALTY programme after all.
‘Hi. Good to see you,’ she smiled.
Omo looked awkward. He avoided her eye. He caught sight of the screen. He tried to avoid the name ODYSSEUS which was large on it. He didn’t know where to look.
‘Sorry. I didn’t mean to disturb you…’ he stuttered.
‘No, it’s fine I was just…’ she waved at the screen. Hell, what had she to lose.. ‘Do you know anything about Odysseus?’ she asked, more in hope than expectation.
Omo returned a blank look. ‘Sorry. No. Should I?’
‘No, I just wondered if Nick had ever mentioned him?’
‘No. He never… we… well… it would have been personal wouldn’t it, and we didn’t really talk about personal things.’
Of course not. She had embarrassed him. He might have shared a home with Nick for five years, but ULTIMATE® would not have encouraged the sort of friendship that meant sharing personal feelings or emotions. They might have talked about how to cheat on level 25 of a game, or the relative merits of one discussion forum over another, but why and how would they have been able to talk about family or….. or anything of value?
‘Uh. I’ve actually got a question for you,’ Omo blurted out. He felt his bravery slipping and he decided he’d best lay his cards on the table straight away. He didn’t know much about Helen but he did figure she liked people to be clear and simple with her. She could only say no after all.
‘Surely. What can I help you with?’ It wasn’t Nick, but it felt good to have someone there actually talking to her, actually interacting and asking for help.
‘What is love?’
She laughed out loud. She couldn’t help it. It was lucky Omo was so dark skinned or he might have visibly blushed. Helen had thought after the news about Nick that she would never laugh again, but here she was, already experiencing an unguarded moment. Vindicating the belief that the human spirit could not be crushed. She laughed because it was just so ridiculous. Here was this earnest product of The PROJECT⌂, the vanguard of the ULTIMATE® system, asking her about love.
‘You want to know what love is?’ She sought confirmation.
He hung his head, ‘I’ve had a definition but….’
‘Sorry. Sorry.’ She wiped a tear from her eye. ‘I’m not laughing at you Omo. It’s just… just the way you came out with it.’
Omo failed to see the joke.
‘Omo, dear, you ask the question as if there would be a simple answer. A simple definition, something the US™ system could give you if you only had enough credits. Whereas the question you are asking me, apart from being, I’m sure, not an authorised or acceptable ULTIMATE® question, is also one to which mankind from his earliest days has struggled to find an answer. And yet, you stand there in front of me, hoping that I’m going to give you the answer, just like that.’
‘So you can’t?’ He was confused.
‘You ask what love is. You are asking what love means. It’ll get you into trouble Omo, because it’s a question about personal meaning.’
‘That’s why I came to ask you,’ Omo replied, ‘I really need to know and….’
Helen didn’t stop to wonder why Omo so badly needed to know what love meant, she just responded to his need to go beyond the limitations imposed by his ULTIMATE® education.
‘All right. I hope you’re not in a rush?’
Omo looked more perplexed. ‘I’ve got an hour or so,’ he replied. ‘Pryce said I could come and see you. But I don’t think he was too happy about it. I said you wanted to talk to me about Nike and he said it was okay but not to make it a regular occurrence.’
‘I don’t know that I’ll be able to answer your question in an hour, or even in a lifetime,’ Helen replied, ‘but I’ll do what I can.’
She beckoned him to sit on the bed and shifted her chair round by forty five degrees till she faced him.
‘Love. What does it mean? Where do I start? What do you understand by the word already?’
Omo thought hard. ‘The definition said it was an intense feeling of deep affection for a person or thing.’
‘And do you think you have this feeling for someone?’ Helen probed.
Omo couldn’t bring himself to say the words but he nodded his head.
‘Okay.’ Helen knew that this was dangerous information. ‘No wonder you didn’t want to talk to Pryce about this.’
If only she knew, Omo thought. Better that she didn’t. If only Omo knew that Helen wouldn’t have been shocked at all. She came from an age after all, when love in all its guises visited itself on the wrong people in the wrong place at the wrong time, all the time. She could have given him chapter and verse on the nuances of lust and love and unrequited love and…. But fortunately his silence meant that she could just give him an overview. She was not counselling him on his own personal situation, merely explaining to him something which had once been all important to people and which ULTIMATE® had downgraded to a useless emotion, replaced by virtual sex and no more meaningful than shopping.
‘If I tell you that throughout the history of mankind, probably more time has been spent on this question than any other, and more answers given than there are stars in the sky, you’ll understand that your ULTIMATE® definition is quite useless. I don’t think one can define Love, Omo and I think that it’s probably a different answer for every person but I’ll do my best to give you MY explanation of love and see what use that is to you. Okay?’
He nodded his head again. And tried to stop thinking of Angela’s naked body entwined round his own, as it had been less than twelve hours ago.
‘Love is a guard against isolation. Love is never having to say you’re sorry. Love is an urban myth. Love is a cliché. Love is a risk. Love is all that is worth living for and for which you lose everything. Love is all you need.’ The phrases tumbled out. She was going to have to do better than this. She tried again.
‘I think that love is a conscious decision one makes, though at the time, one is rarely aware that this is what one is doing. It is a decision in which you say to yourself – I’m going to give myself to this other person, I’m going to consider their needs before my own, I’m going to always give them the benefit of the doubt, the largest share, I’m going to try and be the best person I can be, just to make them happy and even if they never care for me, or love me back, I won’t feel that I have wasted my time.’
‘What do you mean give yourself?’ Omo asked.
‘I don’t just mean physically, though of course that is important.’ Helen felt like she was about to divert into a birds and bees conversation, which she hadn’t done since Catriona was eleven, that would have been in 1997 and right now she wanted to stay on the path of love, not sex. But for a moment she wondered if it was sex, not love that Omo was asking about.
‘Sex is not love you know,’ she added, ‘sex can be part of love but it isn’t the same thing.’
Omo was confused but didn’t like to say. He waited for further explanation. But couldn’t stop thinking about Angela’s naked body…..
‘Love means giving something of your identity, something of who you are privately, inside; your soul, your essence… your very being… allowing another person access to that and striving to live up to the ideals of being worthy of another person giving you that access back.’ Helen realised that words like soul and even identity probably didn’t mean that much to Omo, but she had no other terms of reference.
‘Let me try and explain it better,’ she continued. ‘There are lots of different kinds of love. The way you love a child is completely different to the way you love a partner. The way you love a friend and the way you can love an animal are all variations on the basic theme. Which is that you have to step outside of your isolation and become bigger than one person. In some way by loving you externalise your identity. With a child, the love you have is protective and unconditional. Much like it can be with an animal. Although with a child it becomes more complex because the relationship changes over time as your child grows up and becomes an adult but your love seems stuck in a protective, unequal place and you have to re-negotiate. With an animal the love remains unconditional because the relationship never changes. With a friend your love changes as it stays the same. Perhaps with a friend you have to be more open to change, more accepting, because you have no ‘rights’ over their life or actions. But with a life partner, a husband or wife, for example, there is no room for half measures. You have to dedicate yourself every day to the duty of loving them, accepting them, giving to them, being for them what they need and putting them first. It’s not easy. But the rewards are great. The price is high too. When you lose them you don’t stop loving them. You just stop being with them and being able to show them your love. I loved my daughter and son but they both died before me. Something in me died with them, I suppose the something was the two-way love. But I still love them in my heart.’ She paused, dealing with the pain.
‘It’s the same with Nick. There’s a sense of loss in reality, but he’s still there, somewhere. With Randall, my husband, it’s the worst of all though. When I lost him I felt that the part of myself which made me whole was lost forever. The others were a part of me, but he was the whole of me. Our love meant that we almost ceased to exist as individuals. We existed together and our love was the part that created and sustained that existence. You might say love was the glue which stuck us together. For nearly forty years, I could only define myself in relation to him, I couldn’t think of myself as a person alone. Then suddenly….’ Helen broke off…. she couldn’t help the tears.
Omo surprised himself. A month ago this expression of emotion would have been totally unacceptable to him and he’d have found a way to get out of the room instantly. Somehow now, he felt the need to stay.
‘It’s okay,’ he reassured Helen. ‘I…. I understand.’ There was a pause while she tried to pull herself together.
‘Well, I don’t really understand,’ he admitted, ‘I mean I think I understand what you are telling me. But the feeling… I don’t understand that.’
‘You couldn’t,’ Helen replied. ‘Not many people really experience that kind of love. It was a blessing. And a curse.’
‘Anyway. There must be a reason you came here to ask me this question,’ she continued, ‘and here I am, blubbing over my own past. Come on. Tell me. Who do you think you love?’
Omo pulled up short. He hadn’t expected this. But he found that he wanted to tell her. He wanted people to know. But he knew he couldn’t.
‘I don’t want to say the name,’ he said, ‘I don’t want to get her into trouble.’
‘Fair enough,’ Helen replied. ‘Tell me about the feeling then.’
‘Yes,’ Omo nodded, ‘It’s the feeling. I’ve never felt… well… you know, they don’t really encourage feelings and I’ve not been very good at them before. They aren’t, you know, ‘productive’ usually, but now…. Well, I think about her all the time and I wonder what she’s doing when she’s not with me, and she’s not with me most of the time and I don’t know how she feels about me, but when we’re together it’s… well… it blows my mind, but then I can’t understand how she can just leave me and go back to her life and leave me in my life and…. I suppose I want that thing you said about two people giving to each other, but I don’t feel like she wants to give to me.’
‘That’s unrequited love,’ Helen explained.
‘Is it no good?’’ Omo asked
‘Well, it’s not the best kind,’ Helen added, ‘It’s the kind of love you have when you feel all the emotions but there’s nothing you can do to externalise them. It’s.. well let’s just say it used to be pretty common. But it’s also easily confused with infatuation. That’s when you just can’t stop thinking about someone but all the thoughts are really about your own perception of the other person.’
This was getting complicated. ‘At your age, traditionally,’ Helen confided, ‘it would most likely have been infatuation. I think true love isn’t possible till one has a decent grip on one’s own identity. Until you know who you are, how can you either share or give of yourself in a meaningful way?’ It wasn’t a rhetorical question but Helen knew that Omo couldn’t give an answer. This wasn’t about answers, it was a voyage of discovery. A young man struggling, as so many had before him, to understand the inexplicable.
‘How will I know the difference?’
‘If it’s infatuation it’ll wear off. Sooner or later you’ll look at her and she won’t be the most beautiful woman in the world. The things she does which appeal to you so much now will seem crass and small. If it’s unrequited love, you’ll keep on feeling the same way, but it won’t do you any good either way, because if she doesn’t feel the same way as you, you’re scuppered.’
‘How will I know if she feels the same way?’ Omo asked the sixty four thousand dollar question.
‘You have to ask her,’ Helen said.
Omo was shocked. ‘I couldn’t do that.’
‘I… I just couldn’t.’
‘In which case,’ Helen replied, ‘I think your answer lies in there. If you can’t because you’re frightened she might tell you she doesn’t love you back, and yet you’re not prepared to risk everything to find out, then you are not ready for love. It’s hard, but you have to find out. Of course, sometimes, you just know, even without asking.’
She thought back to the first time she met Randall. Had she made a conscious decision to love him then? Very quickly it had seemed inevitable. The North London concert had certainly marked the clear moment she fell in love and being together had seemed the most obviously right thing in the world. The thing that would make sense of her life. Yet how had she known, back then, that he would love her back?
Was she asking Omo to do something which was impossible? Something she couldn’t have done herself? Here she was, talking with the benefit of retrospect. Had she forgotten what it was like in that first stage?
‘At some point,’ she tried a softer approach, ‘You will have to tell her how you feel and you’ll have to find out what she feels. You have to do it straight out. There’s no alternative. You have to take the risk. But only,’ she added, ‘when you’re ready.’
Omo didn’t think he’d ever be ready to do that. When he imagined the situation, all he could see was Angela laughing at him. He didn’t take that to be a good sign.
‘Have I been any help at all?’ Helen asked.
‘Uh… yes… I mean… I think….’ Omo stuttered. He realised he was going to have to think more about this whole situation. And less about Angela’s naked body…. Because he realised that this was all he had been thinking about. All the things that Helen had talked about were totally alien to him. He had just wanted to be with Angela, having real live sex, feeling good. It seemed that that wouldn’t be enough. Life had been so much easier before Angela. Before feelings. But could he go back to the way things were then, now that everything had changed?