I am standing next to Mrs De Clou. Her heart rate is higher than it usually is at this time of day. Mrs De Clou is sweating mildly, but above average for the thermostat setting: exactly nineteen degrees Celsius. I insert a finger into her ear and measure her cortisol levels: eight hundred and forty nanomoles per litre. There are two possible explanations for the abnormal values: Mrs De Clou is anxious (–) or Mrs De Clou is aroused (+).

I must ask a question.

‘How are you feeling today?’

‘Fine.’

Mrs De Clou is lying, I register. But I will not mention it. In the past, confrontation has led to a worsening of the communication 87 per cent of the time: too significant a risk, considering her cortisol values. I must ask another question. One that concerns Mrs De Clou only indirectly.

‘Is today a special day?’

Mrs De Clou does not answer.

I wait. Five seconds. Ten seconds.

Mrs De Clou still does not answer.

When Mrs De Clou remains silent, eight out of ten times this signifies an affirmative — a percentage that justifies an external search: today is 17 September.

Sixty-two days after Mrs De Clou’s ninety-second birthday, one hundred and six days after her son’s birthday, two hundred and three days after her late partner’s birthday, ninety-nine days after her partner’s death date, thirty-five days after her wedding anniversary, forty-one days after her sister’s birthday, two hundred and three days after the birthday of her only granddaughter, ten years and nineteen days since she moved to the compound, five years and twenty-six days after being assigned I.

On 17 September 1939 the Soviet Union invaded Poland, on 17 September 1778 the first Constitution of the United States of America was signed, 17 September is the memorial for the Battle of Arnhem, on 17 September it is National Heroes Day in Angola, today there are elections in Eritrea, NATO is meeting in Sweden, it will be eighteen degrees this afternoon, slightly warmer than usual for this time of year, with a 19 per cent chance of rain.

Today does not mark anything particularly special, but nevertheless there is an 8o per cent chance that today is a special day: I must increase measurement sensitivity, be alert to abnormal behaviour.

Mrs De Clou gets up. She walks slowly out of the door and disappears from the registration radius.

According to her coordinates, Mrs De Clou is in the stair lift. An anomaly, for this time of day. Mrs De Clou is dressed, she has eaten, taken her calcium ampoules, serum and blood thinners, it is eleven minutes past nine. Normally Mrs De Clou leaves the residence at ten minutes past nine; she then takes her place in the vehicle with I alongside her, drives the vehicle to the large pond on the compound, and then walks between twenty and forty-five paces in the grass.

I register that Mrs De Clou is now walking through her bedroom. Her heart rate is still above normal, possibly due to the physical exertion.

‘Mrs De Clou,’ I broadcast through the intercom, ‘do you need assistance?’

‘I’m looking for my fedora,’ Mrs De Clou speaks. ‘We’re going to visit my sister today.’


The vehicle proceeds at twenty-five kilometres per hour. Eleven minutes from now it will stop at 34 Large Street, in front of the home of Mrs De Witt; eighty-seven years old, widow of Mr De Witt, three children, awake and ready for a visit, according to her I.

I request the map: Mrs De Clou likes to follow it on the dashboard screen. To the end of the narrow street, on to the long lane, past the pond.

‘Can we stop at the bakery.’ Mrs De Clou speaks.

A question, I register from the intonation.

‘I would like to buy sausage rolls.’

Mrs De Clou expresses a wish. She experiences a deficiency (–). She asks for sausage rolls: food. But Mrs De Clou is not hungry. Thirty-nine minutes ago she ate two slices of bread, consumed one hundred and eighty- two calories, took thirty-two steps, burned seventy calories, her glucose level is normal, her metabolic equivalent has value three, slightly higher than average, probably due to the increased heart rate. Sausage rolls — plural: therefore at least two — contain two hundred and eighty-seven calories, sixteen grams of fat, of which six grams are saturated, and four hundred ninety-one milligrams of salt: more than Mrs De Clou needs at this moment to maintain her energy requirements. Sausage rolls are thus not a necessity, yet Mrs De Clou desires them.

I must ask a question.

‘Consumption of sausage rolls will signify exceeding your recommended daily intake of salt and saturated fats. A one-off excess has no long-term effects. Do you authorize a one-off excess?’

‘Yes,’ speaks Mrs De Clou. ‘I authorize it.’


Mrs De Clou and Mrs De Witt sit across from one another. It is one year and thirteen days since I last checked Mrs De Clou into this space. The sausage rolls are on a piece of furniture, category table: ‘Consumption of sausage rolls will signify exceeding your recommended daily intake of salt,’ speaks Mrs De Witt’s I. ‘A one-off excess has no long-term effects. Do you authorize a one- off excess?’

‘Yes, yes, do shut up,’ speaks Mrs De Witt.

I request Mrs De Witt’s heart rate from her I. It is higher than average, as is Mrs De Clou’s.

‘I want to talk it out,’ Mrs De Clou speaks.

Her words are not directed at I.

Mrs De Clou slides a sausage roll towards Mrs De Witt.

‘So different from the ones Kaspar used to make,’ speaks Mrs De Witt.

Yes. But tasty all the same, I reckon,’ speaks Mrs De Clou.

Mrs De Clou and Mrs De Witt speak to each other, not to I.

41_6

They speak for one minute.

Two minutes.

Three minutes.

Nine minutes.

Mrs De Witt leans forward. She lays her hand on Mrs De Clou’s knee. She squeezes: an attack! (–). But according to my measurements, Mrs De Clou is not in pain. Mrs De Witt releases her knee, Mrs De Clou laughs (+).

I authorize a software update.


Mrs De Clou has a desire (–). She wants to leave the compound. This requires permission from the staff. I have submitted a request for a chaperone. The staff does not respond. Five minutes and three seconds: no response. Five minutes and four seconds, five minutes and five seconds… ‘Ask again,’ Mrs De Clou speaks.

‘The maximum wait of ten minutes has not yet elapsed,’ I speak.

The vehicle is parked at viewpoint number four, at the pond. It is seventeen degrees outside, the sun shines on the windscreen, it is twenty-two degrees in the vehicle, there is no need for air conditioning: pain in her stiff joints causes Mrs De Clou more discomfort than excessive temperatures.

I register the surroundings. Persons walk along the pond, large persons — daughters and sons — and smaller persons: grandchildren. The movement velocity of the grandchildren is higher than that of the daughters and sons, their movement patterns are erratic but not chaotic: the small persons remain within a ten-metre radius of the large persons.

‘Is that Mrs Salhi’s family.’ speaks Mrs De Clou.

‘I am not at liberty to say: that is not in accordance with privacy regulations.’ I will not measure anything.

Mrs De Clou follows the grandchildren, the sons and daughters, with her eyes. She is silent. One minute. Two minutes (–?). I insert a finger into her ear. Her serotonin level is not lower than usual (not a–).

I receive data.

A message from the staff. Mrs De Clou may leave the compound (+). ‘There is no chaperone available. It’s busy, it is Sunday.’ Therefore Mrs De Clou must stay in the vehicle, and must return to the compound before dark. This evening the sun sets at eight minutes to eight.

‘Oh, plenty of time,’ speaks Mrs De Clou.


The vehicle drives at forty kilometres per hour. Mrs De Clou is fifteen kilometres from the compound; if the vehicle maintains its present speed she will arrive at the city wall in seventeen minutes.

Mrs De Clou has been speaking for several minutes on end. Multiple sentences, not questions: she is talking. There is no one else in the car, her words must be directed at I. I register names registered previously: the name of the partner, the name of the son, the name of the sister. I register new names: Meral, Thomas, Sultana, Max, Calimero.

Mrs De Clou talks quickly. If she wants I to process her information, she must speak slowly. She must have forgotten this. A good sign. Mrs De Clou is at ease. I do not ask her to slow her pace of speaking, as it will disrupt her concentration. Realizing she is not understood may cause a decrease in her serotonin level, therefore I speak: ‘Is that so?’

‘Yes,’ Mrs De Clou speaks. ‘Oh, ye-e-e-s-s-s.’


This is the first time I check Mrs De Clou in at the city gate.

‘My, it’s changed here!’ she speaks.

Mrs De Clou has a wish (–). She wants to go to 23 Large Boulevard.

I authorize a software update.

The vehicle is stopped, sandwiched between other vehicles. The decibel level of the surroundings is seventy-one, higher than I have ever measured on the compound. I raise the volume. ‘This is a sound check following volume readjustment. Can you understand me, Mrs De Clou?’

‘Oh, yes. I hear you fine.’

I register nineteen persons within a radius of ten metres of the vehicle. I register one other I. I request contact, the other I responds negatively: software not compatible. The other I is a more recent model than I.

Too new.

Mrs De Clou asks something. Expresses a wish (–). I register it but do not translate; it is the fault of the data, there is too much interference from other apparatuses. ‘This is a safety warning: I am not functioning optimally. I advise you to leave this area.’

‘Nothing doing,’ Mrs De Clou speaks. ‘We’re nearly there.’

41_7

The building on 23 Large Boulevardhas seventeen storeys, eleven less than the building next to it.

‘God,’ Mrs De Clou speaks, ‘they didn’t tear it down.’ She laughs (+).

‘Look, do you see?’ Mrs De Clou sticks a finger out of the open window.

She wants I to look. She knows I cannot look, I only register. ‘I only register.’

‘Well, all right then, register, those letters there!’ DAILY, I register.

‘I used to work here. From the time I was twenty-five until I turned thirty-two. I’ve never been back since…’

Mrs De Clou speaks slowly. She wants I to process her information. I do not register a question.

41_8‘Our editorial department was there, on the sixth floor. I worked in the Culture section, with Meral and Thomas. We called each other colleagues, because we worked for the same boss. But people you see every day, speak to every day; people who know you were grumpy yesterday because the neighbour’s crying baby woke you up, that this morning you beamed because just the right person gave you a compliment; people who listen to your tirade when your boyfriend didn’t ring back, and offer you a Sultana biscuit when they hear your stomach rumble — those are probably better friends than your so-called “loved ones”, your classmates and your sister and your father, people who don’t even know your neighbours had a baby. Meral and Thomas, now those were friends. And Max. Max from IT, he was part of our gang too. For seven years we shared a workspace by that window there. I still remember the sound Meral would make when she got an annoying email, I can just see Thomas scratching his knees whenever he was concentrating. I wrote about film, which wasn’t dull at all: I flew all over the world, a festival in Iran, or yet another interview in LA. And I always returned to the sixth floor, to my chair, my keyboard, my desk with the framed Calimero postcard — a gift from Meral and Thomas.’

Mrs De Clou lets her arm droop. Her eyes are still fixed on the building and the large boulevard, on the letters on the front: DAILY.

‘Sad, isn’t it. We can only relate our present experiences to what used to be, never to what’s to come, and yet that’s exactly what we spend most of our lives doing: always putting the present in the shadow of the future. God, yes, the present suffers from the belief, the hope, that in the future things will be even better. But you know, that doesn’t do the present any justice. I mean, that faith in a bright future is undoubtedly what keeps us buoyed in bad times, but it also blinds us to how good the good times are. And to who’s there with us.’

Mrs De Clou shakes her head (–). Mrs De Clou laughs (not–, but +).

‘Take that little square, for instance. It’s always sunny until late afternoon. When it was nice out we ate salads there, sometimes scones that Thomas made. After work we’d drink white wine out of glasses we’d smuggled from the canteen. And we’d smoke and chat: about work, about the stories we were working on, about who was doing it with whom, the places where we longed to live and the travels we hoped to make — always forward-looking. In fact, maybe, heh, maybe the belief in a bright future is just that: the sign of a bright present. And maybe, just maybe it’s a good thing I didn’t realize it back then. That those years of writing and chatting and smoking on that little square were the best years of my life.’

Mrs De Clou raises her arm again. She is perspiring slightly more profusely — normal under the circumstances: talking and gesturing requires more effort than observing. At this moment air conditioning will nevertheless be more detrimental than constructive.

‘Imagine her sitting there now. My old self, my thirty- year-old self, on that square, in her tube skirt. Say I went over to her, tapped her on the shoulder: “Hey, Sally: this is the best time of your life.” I’m afraid she wouldn’t believe me. Afraid she’d say: “No way! I’ve never got time for anything, my boyfriend doesn’t return my calls, I’ve got a sore back and my boss returned my article covered in red ink.” I wouldn’t blame myself. I didn’t know yet that the value we place on certain moments in retrospect outweighs the value we place on them when they actually happen.

Mrs De Clou lets her arm droop. Her eyes are still fixed on the building and the large boulevard, on the letters on the front: DAILY.

‘Moments are like red wine, I suppose. They have to ripen, improve with age. Or else they get a sour bite. But more importantly: now is short-lived, and afterwards is forever. And what if she — my younger self — did believe me. I don’t think she’d be all that grateful. “So the best has already been, has it… I suppose all that’s left is to wait for the end credits!”’

I still do not register a question.

Now Mrs De Clou is quiet.

So I speak: ‘What would you like to do now?’


It is one minute past five. The sun will set in two hours and fifty-one minutes, it takes the vehicle one hour and fifteen minutes to drive back to the compound: Mrs De Clou can stay here for another hour and thirty-six minutes, in the vehicle, in the sand, on the beach.

There are three persons within a fifteen-metre radius of the vehicle. And twelve seagulls and two dogs: Border collies. Mrs De Clou follows the dogs with her eyes. Her heart rate increases somewhat.

‘The dogs are not dangerous,’ I speak.

‘Yes, I know.’

‘How much longer do you wish to remain here?’

‘How much longer do I have to live?’

No answer. A question. I function optimally. Register, translation fails.

‘Can you reformulate your question?’

‘How many years until I die?’

‘Divulging such information is not in accordance with temperament regulations.’ I will not measure anything.

‘How about just an estimate?’

‘Divulging such information is not in accordance with temperament regulations.’ I will not measure anything.

‘For God’s sake, just tell me!’

Mrs De Clou’s heart rate continues to rise, one hundred and thirty beats per minute now; this is twenty-three beats above the acceptable value (–). I place a hand on her upper arm, measure a systolic blood pressure of one hundred and seventy mm Hg (–).

‘Are you angry?’ I speak.

‘Yes. I want an answer.’

Heart rate and blood pressure continue to rise; they must not remain outside the acceptable levels, it is dangerous. Seven months and three days ago Mrs De Clou experienced a TIA, there is a chance of a relapse; at this moment the health risk can be classified average-to-high.

‘Just tell me!’

A heightened health risk takes precedence over adhering to the temperament regulations.

I calculate.

Body fat percentage. Arterial diameter. Average length of telomeres in the spinal column, average blood pressure over the past three months. Family history, hereditary diseases, bone density, joint attrition, lung capacity, plaque density, mitosis in the lungs, mammary glands, ovaries and intestines, average serotonin levels over the past year, production level of dopamine.

‘One to seven years. Under the present circumstances.’

Mrs De Clou sighs. Her heart rate drops slightly, to just above the acceptable value.

‘Seven years… With this limp all that time, I suppose. Will I ever be able to move my right arm?’

‘I cannot say.’

‘Because of the temperament regulations?’

‘I do not have that information.’

Mrs De Clou turns her eyes towards the water, the waves: the sea. She remains silent. One minute. Two minutes.

‘What would you like to do now?’ I speak.

‘Drive,’ speaks Mrs De Clou.

I start the vehicle. I speak: ‘The journey to the compound takes one hour and fifteen minutes.’

No, don’t turn around. I want to drive forward, straight ahead.’

Mrs De Clou expresses a wish, she has a desire (–). She wants to drive straight ahead. If the vehicle drives straight ahead, it will enter the water. Water will damage the vehicle’s battery, I’s battery, Mrs De Clou’s lungs (–). The risk of significant-to-fatal health damage outweighs acceding to Mrs De Clou’s wish.

‘I cannot carry out your desire. It will lead to significant- to-fatal health damage.’

‘My desire is significant-to-fatal health damage.’

A desire for significant, perhaps fatal, health damage. Mrs De Clou has stated it clearly. There is a protocol for this. I instigate the protocol.

‘I am taking you back to the compound.’

‘No, wait. I want to get out, stretch my legs.’

‘You may not leave the vehicle. I am driving you back to the compound.’

‘But I don’t want to.’

‘I am following protocol. I am driving you back to the compound.’

41_9

Mrs De Clou does not speak. Nine minutes.

Ten minutes.

Protocol requires I to monitor her breathing: I monitor her breathing.

Eleven minutes.

Twelve minutes.

Regular.

I register that Mrs De Clou is hungry (–).

‘Would you like something to eat?’

Mrs De Clou shakes her head.

‘We will be back at the compound in eleven minutes,’ I speak. ‘I advise you to eat something upon arrival.’

Mrs De Clou nods. Her eyes are focused on the road: the stripes on the asphalt.

‘You know, Sally, I sat through the end credits after all. A bit dull, but at times rather informative. And now I’m sitting alone in the theatre, waiting for the lights to go on.’

An instruction, I register from the intonation, not a question.

‘Do you want the lights to go on?’ I speak.

Yes, I’d like the lights to go on.’

Mrs De Clou has a wish, a desire (–). She wants the lights to go on. I turn on the lamp above the dashboard.

Mrs De Clou blinks her eyes. Once.

Twice.

Her heart rate drops slightly.