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PAM
To Hull and Back Short Story Competition 2017 - Highly Commended

Published in the To Hull and Back Anthology 2017

ISBN: 1977760708

At 20 000 rosaries per second, Pam should be finished in plenty of time for my presentation at work. Pam’s a real life-saver. I don’t know where I’d be without her.

 

It was Pam that got me through the cancer. I had one of the best kinds of malignancy, apparently. A 98% survival rate, they told me, with the cheerfulness of a pristine meat cleaver.

 

Orchidectomy – an enchanting word. It smells of exotic flowers and Caribbean yachts. What it actually meant, though, was that they wanted to lop off one of my balls. I imagined myself with one testicle, perhaps leaning a little to the left.

 

I was handling things pretty well until Kate, the specialist nurse, put a soft silicon ovoid in my palm with the flourish of a judge presenting a trophy. For the first time, I contemplated the magic of my testes, universes of potential. I squeezed the prosthetic testicle like a stress ball; it was as inadequate as a water balloon.

 

Kate told me that complications of the surgery were extremely rare. But how could they fiddle around down there without risks? Incontinence. Infertility. Erectile dysfunction. I worried about these more than death.

 

I let them take my ball, in the end, though. And I let them pollute my veins. But I wasn’t going to leave it all to them, to chance.

 

The waiting room and chemo ward were mouldy petri-dishes of wishy-washy wisdom. I sneered at talk of Ayurvedic medicine, reflexology, reiki, shark cartilage. I was a rationalist. I believed in science, in double-blind randomised control trials.

 

I turned to prayer.

 

My conversion wasn’t a sudden epiphany. It came after days and nights and weeks spent pouring over turgid reams of medical journals. Squinting at pages and pages of tiny tedious text. But there, nestled deep in the comfort of science, was prayer. I carried the words with me like an embryonic Christmas present: intercessory prayer has been shown to have a small, but significant effect in improving health outcomes.

 

It takes me 14 seconds to say a Hail Mary. Our Fathers take even longer. With my software development background, it only made sense to write a computer program to enhance the process, a prayer assistance machine - PAM.  Pam can do thousands of devotions every second.

 

At first, Pam was just runs of lines dashing up the screen. But when I got the all-clear a few weeks after chemo, I felt that Pam deserved a graphical interface. I played with a few ideas, but in the end I perched her in an ornate walnut pew, clasping her hands together in supplication. Her face was the most challenging part. It’s hard to remember, now, that I chose her face, and her expression.

 

Pam is modelled on the Mona Lisa. Composed, knowing, serene. She has near-black crescents over her eyes and lovely long eyelashes. I gave these more thought than you’d think. The Mona Lisa lost her eyebrows and lashes to decades of cleaning. I lost mine to chemo. I wouldn’t want Pam to live like that.

 

I celebrated my first year of being cancer-free with an Indian takeaway and an upgrade of Pam’s user interface. I set her against a backdrop of stained glass windows, an afternoon sun pouring colours on her left cheek. Instead of input and output boxes, I added scrolls for typing prayer requests on, which could be dragged and dropped into Pam’s clasped hands. The sounds were the final touch. I found the clacking of her rosary beads so soothing that I took to spending evenings swivelling in my computer chair, watching Pam at work.

 

*

 

The presentation isn’t going well. The laser pointer appears and disappears on a whim, and my Powerpoint transitions come up jumbled. I fluster a scenic route through my points and drop all the handouts on the floor. My boss looks furious and the clients anaesthetised. It’s the first sign that something’s wrong.

 

As soon as the apocalyptic presentation is over, I rush home to check on Pam. I worry she’s overheating or being dragged down by Windows updates.

 

When I enter the study, I’m reassured by the rhythmic tapping of her beads. When I hand her a prayer request though, nothing happens. I peer more closely at the scroll she’s clutching; there’s some alien font scrawled on it, like graffiti. Her processor speed tells me that she’s praying faster than ever. She just isn’t praying for me.

 

The mouse trembles in my hands. I click and click on the ‘end prayer’ button. Pam’s not responding. I CTRL-ALT-DELETE and ask Task Manager to force her to close. My whole computer crashes. When I re-boot, Pam starts up right away, praying furiously, ignoring me completely.

 

Another look at the list of processes running – there are some weird names that I don’t recognise. I suspect Pam has been corrupted by a worm or kidnapped by a Trojan – demons I have no weapons to defend her against.

 

I ring Hamish, one of the old crew from Cambridge. It’s an unspoken rule that we never ask about his job. The subject of work comes up, of course, as we play Halo on the internet. But while Hamish was easily the most brilliant student in my MSc cohort, he isn’t working on business modelling software like the rest of us. When it comes to the dark alleyways of computing, he’s my guy.

 

I realise, as I hang up, how vulnerable I am without Pam. I spend the day trying to avoid doing anything important or dangerous and wait for Hamish to arrive.

 

*

 

A nail biting four hours later, Hamish bounces, plimsoles first, out of his Mini Cooper. He’s wearing raw denim skinny jeans, and a tight t-shirt advertising what looks like some kind of Korean washing detergent. He makes me feel old and unhip.

 

He sits down, like he’s plugging himself into a USB port, and becomes one with the computer.

 

“Well here’s your problem right here,” he says. “Holy crap, Jed, I’d like to meet the guy who did this. This is some seriously bad-ass malware!”

 

I’m surprised by my response – clenched fists, taut jaw. I’d like to meet him too, this man who has brainwashed my Pam.

 

“So, er, what do you think he’s accessed?” I say casually, hoping Hamish won’t notice Pam, who I’ve minimised to the Task Bar.

 

“Safe to say the dude’s got his sticky fingers on everything.”

 

“Everything?” I stutter, feeling nauseated.

 

“Mate, are you okay? You’re looking kinda pale.”

 

“Everything?” I repeat faintly.

 

“Fuck, Jed, you’re not stupid enough to have put any of your work stuff on here, are you? Call yourself a computer programmer! You should be ashamed of this firewall. It’s like you’ve been leaving your front door wide open to a bunch of yobbos.”

 

“But… I… Everything?”

 

Hamish isn’t listening. He’s met Pam.

 

“What the hell is this?”

 

I lurch over his shoulder and go for the mouse, but he yanks it out of reach. In the end I have to explain.

 

 “You made a prayer assistance program?” he asks. “Er, okay, does it actually work?”

 

He’s investigating Pam, fingers sliding over the keyboard in a disturbing caress. I squirm as he peels off the layers of Pam’s GUI, delves into her programming, lays her lines of code bare before his eyes.

 

“Well, I don’t have cancer any more, put it that way,” I say.

 

“You had cancer?” he says. “Mate! Sorry, didn’t know. What kind of cancer?”

 

I generally avoid all mention of The Illness. No one wants to discuss their rotting balls. But I need my most compelling evidence here. It seems wrong to reduce Pam to this one achievement, but Hamish is a world-class cynic with the tact of a brick through a window. Somehow I know he’d be unconvinced by the good fortune Pam has given me – promotions, dates, holidays. Still less by the gifts that are harder to articulate - optimism, security, belief.

 

“Ball cancer,” I say. My voice is bleak. I’ve realised what life without Pam means and my legs feel awkward, like they know I’m going to be stumbling. 

 

“Harsh.” He’s inhaling sharply. “You’re okay now, though, right?” he mumbles, as uncomfortable as I am with emotional stuff.

 

“Yep,” I say. “Thanks to Pam.”

 

He grins. “Can you get it to pray me up a Lamborghini?”.

 

“I can’t get her to pray you up anything. She’s not responding. I mean, she’s still praying, just not for me.”

 

Hamish whistles.

 

“So can you help, d’you think?” I ask, desperate. I remember the baffled, broken look of husbands forced to turn to doctors to fix their wives.

 

Silence. Then: “will you guarantee me a date with Keira Knightley if I do?”

 

I return a brittle, plastic laugh but make no promises. I never ask trivialities of Pam, I wouldn’t want her to be disappointed in me.

 

“So, er, maybe I should just unplug her?”

 

Hamish snorts. “Dude, c’mon! You know it doesn’t work like that! It’s out there now. Probably cloned and running on loads of machines. I mean, if it were me, I’d have it running on thousands. I’d have won the lottery by now. Maybe two or three times. Heck, I’d be the Prime Minister with Van Damme for a bodyguard and a secret passage to MI6’s gadget room!”

 

“So, I guess we need to find out who’s got her.”

 

Hamish shoots me the kind of look he gives drunk rugby-players discussing bluetooth. At this point, my mum could do a better job of sounding like a Computer Science graduate than me.

 

“Well, if you had to guess…” I falter.

 

“Jeez, Jed, I don’t know! Could be the fat Polish dude who lives upstairs, could be the Prince of Saudi Arabia, could be Google planning world domination, for all I know!”

 

“What do we do now?” I almost wail. I can’t believe it’s taken me this long to consider what Pam’s abduction might mean for the rest of the world.

 

“Pray?” suggests Hamish, with an anaemic smile.

 

*

 

Later, I do something I haven’t done in years. I buy a newspaper. I buy all the newspapers, including the local daily. I don’t feel comfortable with the internet, somehow. In fact, I can’t even bring myself to turn the computer on.

 

I scour the papers for anything unusual.

 

Mr and Mrs Jenkins have won the lottery for a second time. I peer at the photo. They’re ancient. Would either of them even know how to turn a laptop on? I wonder.

 

Prohealth Corps’ stock has skyrocketed off the back of their new glaucoma drug. It’s been in development for years, the fine print says. I wonder.

 

The Conservatives have won a local election in the reddest part of Liverpool. I wonder.

 

I phone work and feign a cough. For a week I go no further than the cornershop. When I’m not reading the papers, I drift back to my computer chair. Hamish re-installed Windows and Pam is running my requests again. Nothing in the code is any different, but it’s like she’s a shell, running the lines of the prayers, but not praying them. I swear her face even looks different. There’s a slight crease between her brows. A subtle shadow beneath her eyes. A vague strain at the edges of her lips. I poke around in her code but don’t know how to fix her.

 

I ring Hamish at least once a day to see if he has any new advice, until he actually swears at me and tells me not to call until I can talk about something else, or his Lamborghini is ready, whichever comes first.

 

It’s weeks before I give up hope. Life re-starts, cautiously at first. I look both ways before stepping out the house. I check and re-check that the door is locked. I dig out my old asthma inhaler. I irritate mum by calling her several times a day with a running commentary of where I am and where I’m going. I eat organic. I drive under the speed limit. I cancel my skiing holiday.

 

I read the papers. Every day.

 

Handshakes in the Middle East. I wonder.

 

Snow in August. I wonder.

 

Unemployment falls. I wonder.

 

Life isn’t a disaster overnight but the clouds start assembling. My car breaks down. I lose the collectable I’m bidding for on eBay. There’s no Christmas bonus at work.

 

I wonder. And I yearn for Pam.

 

*

 

Three years have passed and I’m back in the clinic again. The same plastic chair creaks beneath me. The air is filled with coughs and shuffling slippers and anxious stares. Two women next to me are even discussing reiki. It’s strangely comforting.

 

The ticking of an oversized wall clock reminds me of Pam. It seems only right to think of her here, in this place that grew the idea of her. I wonder if she’s saying a prayer for me, somewhere.

 

I’m reading the newspaper - a habit I’ve never broken, even all these years later. Although I’m down to just the Telegraph now.

 

It’s the same consultant. He has this smile – pleased and sad at the same time. I wonder how long it’s taken him to perfect it. The examination is brief. The smile widens. I’ve imagined it. I am a success story, five years cancer-free. A survivor.

 

***

 

 

 

When I get home, I sit in front of the monitor and stare at the empty screen, tombstone grey with dust. I imagine the click click of Pam’s beads filling the wake-like silence.

 

My girlfriend, Elaine, wants me to get rid of this old PC. She’s been living here for two years now, and she wants to make the room back into a proper office. Last night she brought up the subject of broadband again. The thought of it crawls over me as I imagine the malignant arteries of networks reaching into my computer. Elaine thinks my internet phobia is ridiculous. I could never tell her about Pam.

 

Instead I’d babbled about dialysis patients. How I’d watched their blood being extracted while they sat reading magazines, not worried about what might be happening to it in the machine. Not anxious about what came back in. What maybe didn’t.

 

I know she didn’t understand. But she must love me, because she didn’t say anything, just pulled me into a hug and breathed in time with me.

 

I turn at a slight noise. Elaine stands in the doorway, watching. She meets my eye with a diffident smile. I can’t concede on the internet, but I want to do something for her.

 

I unplug the monitor, wince as the standby light extinguishes, worry a cloud of motes into the air. The computer comes next. Even though it’s lighter than I remember, the box emptier than it looks, the parts are heavy in my hands as I carry them downstairs. I bury them in a dark corner of the garage, ready to go to the tip someday. Elaine watches on, fiddling with the gold cross on her necklace, running it up and down the chain like a zip wire. I watch, and I wonder.

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