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‘Good morning, Alan,’ Trixie said gently. ‘It’s 6:30a.m. Time to get up.’   Alan Briggs lifted himself onto his elbow, rubbed his ey...

Trixie is Here

‘Good morning, Alan,’ Trixie said gently. ‘It’s 6:30a.m. Time to get up.’
  Alan Briggs lifted himself onto his elbow, rubbed his eyes, struggled to bring the bedside clock into focus. Trixie, it turned out, was telling the truth.
  How funny it was that he felt the need to check, now that he had compromised her. He had trusted her completely the week before, known she would never let him down. Hers had been the only impenetrable system, the only backend into which he had never been able to find a backdoor. But no database is infallible, no server completely secure, and since that eureka moment last week in which he had finally found a way to break in, he no longer felt quite as comfortable taking her at her word. He knew that her intelligence had not been changed, that her answers would still be correct and her assistance invaluable, but the awareness that someone had access to her servers, even if it was only himself, had destroyed his trust. They would have to remove her from the house, as soon as they could find a free minute to do it. Convenience be damned.
  ‘You can shower first, darling,’ his wife said. ‘It’s your big day, you need time to do your makeup.’
  He turned and looked at Nora, smiling sweetly back at him. He kissed her forehead, swung his legs off the side of the bed, and dragged his feet toward the en-suite. 
  ‘I’ll start the shower,’ said Trixie, before the water began pouring.
  After his shower, he stood in the kitchen, pouring two coffees and trying desperately to remember where he had put his cufflinks after the last time he had worn them. Most days, he could get by with a short-sleeved shirt and scruffy chinos; but there was no way he could accept a commendation from the Prime Minister dressed like that. He had to dress up, which meant locating those cufflinks, polishing his one pair of smart shoes, even combing his hair.
  ‘Good morning, hero,’ Nora said, wandering in in her dressing gown and picking up a cup. ‘What are you thinking about?’
  ‘Oh, nothing,’ Alan replied, ‘just my cufflinks. Haven’t seen them, have you?’
  Trixie had. ‘The last time I saw your cufflinks,’ she said, ‘was when you placed them in the drawer for spare wires and gadgets.’
  Alan grunted. Of course he had thrown them there – that was where he threw everything small enough to hold in one hand.
  ‘Are you okay?’ Nora asked, stroking his arm. ‘You seem nervous.’
  ‘Yes, yes. I’m alright. I could do without today, that’s all.’
  Nora laughed. ‘Oh, you silly bean. You can’t keep on being so darn good at your job and expect to never see the limelight. Your overachieving was always going to catch up with you sometime.’
  ‘Well, I suppose I’ll just have to be a bit less brilliant, eh?’
  ‘I don’t think you could manage it. It oozes from you.’ She put her hand on his chest, kissed him on the cheek, and he blushed.
  ‘Oh, stop it,’ he laughed, as he gently pulled himself away from her and poured the dregs of his coffee down the sink.
  ‘So, who’s actually giving you this award, then?’ His wife asked, leaning against the kitchen counter.
  ‘The PM.’
  ‘Oh, it really is? I thought you were joking when you said that. Well, now I’m even more impressed. My husband, receiving a medal from our glorious, noble leader of the free world. Gosh.’ She fanned herself with one hand, swooning over her coffee.
  Alan scoffed. ‘Are you thinking of the same man I am?’
  ‘Well, yes, it’s a shame that it's that fat, bigoted, election-fiddling twit; but it’s the office that matters. The country is proud of you, darling!’
  ‘I suppose so. As long as I can keep my breakfast down when he’s wobbling those chins in my face, I should be a national treasure by teatime.’
  ‘And keep your eyes off his ghastly wig.’
  ‘And try not to breathe in his stinking breath.’
  ‘And keep out of range of his wandering hands.’
  ‘Good point,’ Alan said, grabbing his wife by the waist. ‘You’ll have to stand behind me for protection, if you plan to carry on looking this good.’
  She retched theatrically, then giggled, then kissed her husband like a smitten teenager. ‘Go on,’ she said eventually, pushing him toward the door and smacking his bum on the way out, ‘get dressed now. He can’t give you a prize if you don’t turn up on time.’
  ‘The time is 6:52a.m.,’ said Trixie, always eager to get involved.

The ceremony was more boring than Nora had anticipated. She had known, of course, that it would not be an afternoon devoted entirely to her husband, a celebration of his achievements alone; but she had still allowed herself to imagine something close to that. What she got instead was more like those tedious graduation ceremonies she had been forced to attend when they had both been professors at the university, all those decades ago: long lines of students, too many to count and certainly far too many to remember, all waiting for their turn in front of some minor celebrity or other person of debatable note, who would hand them a blank roll of paper, pat them on the back and never think about them again. 
  Far from being all about Alan Briggs, there was a whole room full of Alans and Alices from different government and intelligence departments, all queued up for their commendations and their three seconds of small talk with the PM.
  But she was proud – so proud that she could not hold back the tears when Alan’s turn came – and besides, the party afterward was actually rather fun. It turned out that an old friend of Allan’s from one of his first jobs in the intelligence services, one Paula Hawkins, had also received a commendation that day, so when they bumped into her and her wife Lorna at the afterparty, they were set for the evening. They were so engaging, witty and vibrant that when Alan was led away by the PM, who grabbed his arm and pulled him halfway across the room for a private word, Nora barely even noticed.
  ‘It’s Briggs, isn’t it?’ The Prime Minister asked, his hot, chubby hand still clenched around Alan’s elbow.
  ‘It is, yes.’
  ‘I wanted to speak to you privately, just to let you know how interested I am in the work you’re doing.’
  ‘Oh, well, thank you, I—’
  ‘Really, really, important work. Vital to the old… the old…’ and he said the next words like they were a smutty secret: ‘…national security.’
  ‘Well, yes. I’m glad you think so. The challenge has always been for intelligence and crime-fighting services to keep up with the rate of technological progress that—’
  The PM pointed his glass of wine in the direction of a tall, grey man in decorated military uniform, to whom he had slowly been leading Alan Briggs. He gave Alan a smile that told him that he did not need to go on, that his words were not even going in, and then he opened his wide mouth to speak.
  ‘This is Commander Ashton,’ he said, ‘who leads many of our covert enforcement operations. The disturbing things you and your department find in your important work often end up on this man’s desk, and he uses them to keep our country safe, without most people on the street ever realising there was anything to be kept safe from.’
  Briggs smiled politely. ‘Nice to meet you,’ he said.
  Commander Ashton was long and thin in every regard. Long legs, long arms, long body, and the longest, thinnest, most horse-like face Alan had ever seen on a human. He was so pale and wrinkled that if one encountered him sleeping, one might well assume that he was a cadaver; but standing on his skinny legs, looking at Alan through icy blue eyes and breathing through flared nostrils, he was clearly alive, for now. He nodded silently at Alan, before turning to the PM. ‘Thank you, Prime Minister,’ he said. And as if Alan Briggs was a parcel they were passing around the room, he put his arm around Alan’s shoulder and led him away from the PM, who kept on smiling, even as his eyes wandered away, and settled on the buttocks of a young waitress as she carried a tray of canapes across the room.
  ‘So, I gather you have been commended today for the work you did on monitoring the communications of that small terrorist network in Cornwall,’ Ashton said, leading Alan away from the party and into a long, oak-lined corridor, the sound of bustling conversation fading fast behind them. 
  ‘Yes, that’s right.’
  ‘That was impressive work. Although having listened to those recordings your team uncovered last month, of foreign agents plotting once again to interfere in our referendums, I think you’ve done far more valuable work than that. That’s what you really should be here for.’
  Commander Ashton still had his hand on Alan’s shoulder as he led him along the corridor, the sound of eager networking and clinking glasses now just a muffled whisper in the distance. Alan smiled gratefully, unsure how to receive the compliment. ‘I suppose they can’t reward me for giving them information they haven’t used yet. No arrests have been made, I’ve heard nothing more on it. I’m surprised you’ve even heard about it; I thought it had fallen into the void.’
  Ashton’s thin, pursed lips broke, and he smiled at Briggs as if he were a naïve child, someone who had missed the point entirely, even as it stared him in the face. ‘Arrests or no, I’m sure someone found it useful. In fact, I know they did. Things like this are simply a little more… delicate. They call for action from departments like mine. A quieter approach.’
  Alan furrowed his brow, taken aback by the older man’s implication. ‘So, what happened to the people on the list I provided? Will they face trial?’
  Ashton’s smile grew wider, now more amused than polite. He closed his eyes, shook his head. Obviously, Briggs did not need to know. He stopped sharply at a door and opened it, pointing with his spare hand into a dimly lit room, directing Alan inside. ‘The point is,’ he said slowly, ‘that you might want to get used to occasions like this, if you intend to keep performing so magnificently.’
  As Alan stepped into the room, a flood of discomfort seemed to fill his abdomen. Perhaps he had been as naïve as Ashton’s smile had made him feel, when he had assumed that the criminals, terrorists and foreign agents he exposed would all face fair trials and public scrutiny. If the case that Ashton was talking about had been brought to a conclusion in secret, he was sure it must have been thought through thoroughly, that there was a very good reason to keep these things out of the public eye and resolve them quickly and quietly; but did he really want to be complicit in all that? If the people on that list were being tortured for information, or held in windowless rooms with no hope of escape… or worse, lying in a morgue, having been secretly eliminated by the state… did he really want to lend his name and his work to that kind of activity? Did he really believe that the ends justified such extreme, disagreeable means?
  He had never imagined that the information he gave would be used to hurt or detain people without trial or oversight. If he had, he might never have volunteered his services. That kind of thing made his stomach turn.
  It did not help that the room into which he had been led, by this sinister-looking old stranger, was so dark. So stiff and stuffy, the way one imagined hidden back rooms in Westminster, built for dark deals and treacherous negotiations. Dark mahogany and red velvet, drinks cabinet in the corner and secret documents in the desk drawer. It all felt so sordid, like he was being initiated into a secret society he had never wanted to join.
  ‘So, your specialty is hacking into communications devices, is that right?’ Ashton said, closing the door and taking a seat in front of an unlit fireplace, gesturing toward the seat opposite for Alan to do the same.
  Alan snapped himself out of his runaway train of thought. He was probably being dramatic, letting his imagination run away with him – he often did. ‘Well, yes, it was,’ he replied, taking a seat. ‘But recently, it has kind of morphed into gaining access to the data collected by digital assistants. Lori, Ada, Bugsby…’
  ‘And you recently added Trixie to the list.’
  ‘We did. She was the last one, so now we have access to every major personal assistant commercially available.’
  ‘I gather we are the first country to break into her backend. Impressive, I must say. But when you say “access”, what exactly does that entail?’
  ‘Well, we can read all the historical data they have ever collected. Listen to recordings, scan search histories. If the digital assistant’s servers still hold the data – which they usually do – we can pull it. We can even listen live, through the device’s microphone.’
  ‘So, we can listen in on half the country’s conversations, whenever we want.’
  ‘More than half – around 68 percent of homes have installed digital assistants now, and the number keeps on rising.’
  Ashton smiled again, his thin lips spreading wide, eyebrows raised. He was impressed.
  ‘Years ago,’ he said slowly, absently, staring into the fireplace as if he were watching imaginary flames dancing away, ‘it would be considered an outrage to bug the homes of millions of supposedly innocent people. Now they go out and buy the bugs themselves, and install them with no small amount of glee. We should find the man who persuaded the public that filling their homes with microphones was a good idea and give him a job.’
  ‘Yes. I’d like to see people’s faces if you went back to the Cold War days and told them that in the future, people would be happy with their television being manufactured in a foreign dictatorship and coming fitted with a camera and microphone. Still, I’d like to say they hadn’t fooled me, but my wife insisted we get one. Apparently flicking light switches and setting alarms with our own fingers was too much hard work. We settled on Trixie at the time, but now… Well, I don’t think she’s long for our house.’
  He laughed a nervous laugh, then felt himself blush. Talking about a subject he knew so well had given him confidence, but not nearly enough to overcome the intimidation of this dimly lit room, that stern looking man sitting across from him. Ashton did not seem to notice Alan’s silly laugh – he simply stared into the fireplace, as if trying to make it back down and light itself.
  After a few moments’ thought, he looked up and asked: ‘Do we have the ability to alter the recordings on the servers? Write data? Or, say, remove conversations which, for instance, we might not want any other agencies to ever gain access to?’ 
  ‘No,’ Alan replied. ‘Well, I mean, we do have a certain level of write access to Bugsby, and the ID we compromised on Lori practically gives us sysadmin rights – but that was no great surprise; buy cheap, buy twice. But I say no because we would just never want to use that access, even on the systems on which we have it. Reading is one thing – we can slip in, take a copy of the data, and log off before anyone who monitors the system notices – but changing the data is quite another. As soon as we write to the servers, make changes, remove data we don’t like, we’ve left breadcrumbs for someone to follow. They’ll notice something has changed, or something is missing, and at best, we’d suddenly find ourselves locked out, and at worst, they’d expose us. These companies like to make a big song and dance about how important their customers’ privacy is to them – it’s not, of course; they manipulate, sell and otherwise misuse that data all the time – but because they say it is, they’d very much enjoy an opportunity to embarrass us, catch us in the act of spying on them and shut us down very publicly. I don’t think it’s a risk anyone would have the appetite to take.’
  Ashton was nodding, looking into the fireplace again, his brows furrowed and eyes narrow.
  ‘Besides,’ Briggs continued, ‘as I say, we haven’t managed to get write access to half the digital assistants out there, so in most cases we wouldn’t be able to do it if we wanted to.’
  Ashton suddenly stood, brushed down his uniform, strode over to the drinks cabinet behind his chair. ‘I’m so sorry,’ he said, ‘I was so interested in getting to the heart of your work that I forgot my manners. Would you like a scotch?’
  ‘Oh, I’m fine thanks. I would love to, but it just ends up giving me heartburn.’
  Ashton shrugged, pouring himself a drink with his back to Alan. When he was done, he sauntered back over to the fireplace and stared at the painting above it – some fat aristocrat, surrounded by drooling dogs – as if deep in thought. He sipped his drink, seemingly mulling over whether it was wise to discuss the idea, or problem, or whatever it was that so preoccupied him, with his new acquaintance. Alan Briggs just watched him, growing gradually more unsure as time passed whether he should leave the room and go back to the party, or wait to be told why he had been dragged away from it in the first place. 
  Commander Ashton must have finally come to a decision, because eventually, he cleared his throat, turned to face Alan, and finally sat back down in his seat, staring across at Briggs intently.
  ‘The Prime Minister,’ he said slowly, clearly, but very quietly, as if this was a secret he would only say once, so it was important that Alan Briggs listened carefully, ‘has asked me to conduct a very special investigation, working directly with you and your team. He is aware, as have been the intelligence services for a long time, that the opposition are gaining momentum, and although his party have been in power for nearly twenty years now, it looks like the election next year could bring an end to the peace, prosperity and stability we are all very used to.’
  It was now Alan Briggs’s turn to furrow his brows. He did not see how election campaigns could be his problem. Unless they wanted him to find out, by searching for keywords in recorded conversations between families in their homes, why the PM was no longer so popular. If that was what they wanted, he could probably tell them himself.
  But soon, it was clear that this was not what they wanted. What they wanted was worse.
  ‘We think that the opposition, in their current state, with their current leader, would be a danger to the country, should they ever manage to claw together a majority in parliament. What the country needs at the moment is strength, certainty, to be assured that everyone has a place and everyone is kept in their place. So, the PM would like us to do whatever we can to help… give the country what it needs.’
  Alan’s mouth had fallen open, and his nerves had been vanquished by hot outrage. ‘You can’t be suggesting we work to rig an election?’
  Ashton shrugged, like Briggs had not quite hit the nail on the head, but the idea was not out of the question. Then he shook his head, solemnly, as if the whole thing had been a silly passing thought, and he wanted to get back to the matter at hand. ‘No,’ he replied. ‘The Prime Minister would never do such a thing – our democracy is an example to the rest of the world, one of the things that makes our country so undeniably great. No, what we are tasked with is simply compiling a list of subversives. People who are saying bad things about the government, people who have a lot to say about the Prime Minister in particular. Just a list of people to keep an eye on, in case things get out of hand.’
  ‘And what’s he going to do with it? How could he ever use that list meaningfully? It’s not illegal to criticise the government; not in this country, anyway. What are we now, Ingsoc?’
  Ashton held out his large, bony hands, stopping Alan in his tracks. ‘What we will do with the people on the list is my department,’ he said, and Alan physically recoiled. In his head, on hearing the phrase do with, he heard the cries of protestors screaming to be given back their right to vote, the screams as those protests were terminated with violence. The fear and suffering of the government’s opponents, as their leaders mysteriously went missing, one by one.
  He wanted to give this man a piece of his mind, lecture him on the sanctity of the democratic process, scream at him for trying to prop up a government that had spent two decades stealing from the poor to give to the rich, selling the country to pay for their dinner parties; but he could not. The man had made him feel uncomfortable before, intimidated and disturbed him with his spindly body and colourless skin and cold eyes; but now, he terrified him. He had become, with this request which crossed the line in Briggs’s mind from simply questionable to indubitably evil, and delivered with such shameless certainty, the kind of monster timid children feared. The leering, towering shadow up a wall, warning you that someone was coming from behind to stab you in the spine. Alan Briggs remained silent, wearing his shock, fear and anger on his face like a Halloween mask he could not remove, as Ashton continued. ‘For now, you can just stick to your own, which is to scan your records, search these assistants’ archives, for anyone talking about the kinds of things the government would rather were not discussed. Things like criticisms of economic policy or foreign dealings, or people who, for instance, talk about the Prime Minister’s sex life, or his hair. We’ll get the full list of topics and keywords over to you on Monday.’
  ‘Are you serious? Is this a joke? I can’t believe what you’re asking, or that you can even ask it with a straight face. This is disgraceful. I… I refuse to do it. I can’t. I won’t. You can’t make me, I’d rather quit. If the PM thinks he can suddenly become a dictator then he’s… he’s just…’
  Ashton’s hand slammed down on the arm of his chair loudly, and he roared above Alan’s protestations without changing his expression. ‘This is not a request,’ he boomed, his face stony and his icy blue eyes staring straight through Alan, ‘it is an order. If you would like to leave your post, that is your prerogative; however, I would remind you that your level of access to information, and to top secret investigations, has been far too high for us to simply allow you to re-enter society, another bitter subversive with an axe to grind and lies to spread. We can do this without you if we have to, you have built nearly all the tools we need and we are sure that someone in your small, expert team would be more than willing to step into your shoes to finish them. But I would advise you reconsider, if not for your sake, then for the sake of Nora, and her safety and happiness.’
  Briggs had fallen silent as soon as Ashton had begun, and now he felt sick. Not because his wife had been threatened – he had hardly heard that over the blood rushing past his ears, draining from his head and filling his stomach so that he could taste the iron on his tongue, feel acid rising in his throat. Something chilling had come back to him, in that moment: the conversation he had had with his wife that morning, in the kitchen, over coffee. One of what must have been thousands of the same sort of thing, too many to count. Joking about the PM’s wandering hands, his wig, his stinking breath. All while Trixie listened.
  And having been asked to pull a list of everyone who had ever said anything bad about the PM, he saw himself shackled to his wife, dirty and naked, two broken people in a long line of subversives being marched across a concentration camp yard, with guns poking into their sides and hungry stomachs growling inside them.
  He was doomed either way. If he helped them, he was giving them the information they needed to add him to the ever-growing list of enemies of the state, and the permission to do to him whatever they were planning to do to those enemies in the near future; and if he refused, they might just kill him now. Perhaps that was why he had been led here, so far from the party – so that he could be dispatched, if necessary, without causing a fuss.
  But then he realised: there might be a way to save his skin. If only he could find a way to remove all of his data from Trixie’s servers, delete any trace of his own subversion, he might yet survive. He might save Nora from whatever fate awaited her, when the PM found out that she was one of millions who loathed him to his very core. If he could buy some time, he just might manage to save his family.
  He swallowed down the rock-hard lumps of anger and fear that had formed in his throat, and tried to affect a willing posture. Ineffective, of course, given his nerves, and the fact that he had had to be threatened in order to finally accept the job; but still, he tried.
  ‘Okay,’ he said, failing to look Ashton is those bottomless, merciless eyes. ‘Okay. I’ll get to work on it, on Monday.’
  ‘Excellent,’ said Ashton, rising to his feet again. He held out his hand and smiled that emotionless, insincere smile that Alan Briggs had already learned to hate, within an hour of meeting the man. 
  When Alan stood and took his hand to shake it, his skin was cold and rough, like a leather glove left to age on a winter pavement.
  ‘Our requirements will be over to you by the time you arrive into work next week. Since you exposed those foreign spies within a month of being asked, we were thinking you could provide a comprehensive list of names, addresses and recordings within a couple of weeks?’ 
  Then, without waiting for an answer: ‘Good show. I look forward to working with you.’
  He strode past Alan to the door of the room, and opened it once more, waiting beside it for Alan to gather his composure and walk with him back to the party. Alan Briggs walked like a man defeated, exhausted and beaten, his legs dragging behind him and his mind too distracted to call his errant body to order.
  When he eventually reached the door, he was stopped momentarily by Commander Ashton’s hand on his chest. Pulling him back to reality like an anvil to the ribs. ‘The Prime Minister would ask you to ensure,’ Ashton muttered, talking past Briggs as if he was not even worth looking at, in that same quiet but firm tone he had used to brief him on this despicable mission, ‘that the data you provide is comprehensive. If our contacts within your team were to mention, during our regular chats, that you had decided to leave any names or found conversations out of the intelligence you provide to us… Well, I don’t think you’d make it to any more of these events, that’s for certain.’
  Briggs nodded. If he had a bucket, or a bag, or even just a room to be alone in, he could have thrown up the entire contents of his body there and then. But instead, he felt Ashton’s hand drape itself over his shoulder, just as it had on the way into this terrible meeting, and lead him back to the party, a shell of the man he had been when he had gone in. One step at a time, legs moving robotically, as his mind raced to find a solution to his life-threatening problem.
  ‘Alan? Alan! Where’ve you been?!’ Nora asked, and Briggs felt like he was waking from a horrible nightmare, as his consciousness drifted once again back from images of future incarceration and torture to the here and now, where his wife stood in front of him, shaking him by the arms and shouting in his face. ‘You disappeared for so long. Where the hell did you go?’
  Alan gestured to his right, attempted a smile. ‘Nora,’ he slurred, his mouth reluctant to cooperate, declaring itself out of the union between his body and his brain, ‘meet Commander Ashton. He’s…’
  ‘Alan,’ Nora interrupted, seeming now more confused than concerned, ‘there’s no one there.’
  Alan looked. She was right – there was no one there. Ashton must have slipped off into the crowd while Alan was daydreaming, worrying, scrambling to plot an escape from the grave he had dug for himself and his loved ones. ‘Oh,’ he said.
  ‘I think we should go home. You look really unwell. I’m worried about you.’ Nora took his arm, started to lead him across the room, past laughing spies and their drunk husbands, fat politicians and their pretty mistresses. ‘What on Earth could be so wrong, darling? Do you need some water before we go? I can…’
  Alan put his finger to his lips, as she led him through the room like a zombie on a leash. He pointed his red face at his beautiful wife, and he giggled, almost manically. 
  ‘Sssh,’ he said, then he pointed at the ceiling. ‘Trixie is here.’

I've always wanted to write something for World Mental Health Day, but until this year, I've always failed to do so for two rea...

Imagined Anxieties: A World Mental Health Day Post

I've always wanted to write something for World Mental Health Day, but until this year, I've always failed to do so for two reasons.

The first is that most years, I never know the date on which World Mental Health Day falls, until it has already fallen. 

The second is the same reason I'm always having ideas for stories, but rarely writing them down. Why I've spent years writing novels, and I've only ever released one: I'm not really sure that I have anything worthwhile to say.

Most people will be impacted by mental heath issues at some point. According to the Mental Health Foundation, 1 in 6 people in the past week will have experienced a mental health problem. So what could I, an exceedingly average hobbyist writer who hardly ever posts on his blog and has never really written any non-fiction about mental health, add to the conversation? When there are so many bloggers, journalists and intelligent scienticians writing useful pieces on mental health all the time, I fear not much.

But this year, I know the date. So I thought: fuck it. I'll write something to get it out there, and even if it doesn't bring anything new to the table, at least it might give someone a good laugh.

My major mental health episodes began after I left university. I had spent the last year of uni bitter and twisted, mainly just working to get the degree done and staying in at the weekends, because I'd alienated most of my friends by lashing out after a bad breakup and treating everyone like a total dickbag (an episode which fills me with so much regret that I wrote another article about it to post today, which my wife rightly advised that I should think twice about publishing, because she said it read like I was trying to humiliate myself as punishment for my sins... which I probably was). 

But I was getting over that, and love life aside, things were looking pretty good. I was on a good graduate scheme, I had a laid back lifestyle and a small circle of close friends, and I was saving up for my first car. 

I had to do a fair bit of growing up pretty quickly - at university, I had been waking up in the afternoon and going to bed in the early hours of the morning. In the third year, I hardly ever turned up to lectures, because all the notes were online and I was doing well enough without going in. When I did go in, I tended to sit with my friends, making jokes at the expense of the lecturers. But now I was an adult with a real job, so I had to go to bed at a sensible time and get up as soon as my alarm went off. When I was at work, I had to be sober, properly dressed and civil to my peers and my boss. It was a real shock to the system.

But I coped (brave of me, I know), and pretty soon I had enough money to buy my first car. A flashy convertible one, with only three previous hairdressing owners.

That's when the trouble began. After a couple of months of owning it, something strange happened in my brainbox. I started to worry that I would hit someone or something with my lovely new car - despite the fact that I’ve always been a very sensible (slow) driver - and leave terrible destruction in my wake, without even realising it. 

Which made me want to drive it less, just in case my worries came true.

I didn’t drive it less, because I still wanted to get where I was going, and the worry wasn't crippling yet. But over the course of a few weeks, that niggling doubt blossomed into an intense paranoia. And very suddenly, it got to the point where I would complete a journey in my car, then spend the rest of the night worried sick (literally, so worried that I felt physically sick) that I had hit someone on the way, and driven on obliviously. 

I knew that I would have heard the crash, felt the bump of the collision; but my brain wasn’t interested in reason or logical thought. In those moments, I would genuinely believe that I had killed a pedestrian with my car, and my memory had erased it; and I would spend hours expecting the police to knock on my door and bring me the justice I deserved.

Sometimes, the paranoia was so convincing that I would have to get back in my car and drive the same route again, to check that there was no debris in the road, no police cordon around the dead body I’d left on the tarmac. Which, of course, would give me a new journey to worry about. And the cycle continued.

Whatever was happening in my head wasn't content, however, with just ruining my driving experience. It escalated very quickly, and within probably less than a month, I had become paranoid not only about driving, but about everything. 

A stranger glancing at me strangely as we waited for a bus together probably shot me that look because he wanted to kill me, and was planning to do so within the next few days. If a friend said something strange or out of character, it must be because I had mortally offended them and destroyed the friendship, and no amount of apologies would make it better now, because they were out to get me.

News stories about war or climate change or pretty much any volatile situation (so, really, any news story) filled me with a dread that we didn’t have much time left, that the end times were coming.

Everything in the world was out to destroy me. How arrogant is that? 

Quite arrogant. But also very terrifying. If you haven’t experienced paranoia like this before, I fear that I am probably not a skilful enough writer to communicate effectively just how all-consuming these fears were. They ate away at me constantly, all day every day, and I would feel physically queasy most of the time, worrying about whichever small event I had chosen at the time which - in my imagination, at least - would inevitably spiral out of control and end in my demise.

When I say everything, by the way, I really mean everything. I was scared that people I knew would overhear me saying bad things about them in my flat, when I wasn’t saying bad things about them at all, and even if I was, I knew they were miles away. 

When I donated old books to a charity shop, I would spend a couple of the following days worried that someone would buy it, find some kind of offensive note or a pamphlet for an extremist organisation enclosed inside, and hunt me down for the hateful views I didn't even hold. I’m not a member of any groups which would hand out pamphlets, let alone the kind of insane ones I was imagining.

If you’re laughing incredulously at how crazy I went, know that I don't blame you. I’m just an average man who has lived a relatively comfortable life. The fact that this kind of issue can come out of nowhere and completely take over my life is mystifying. Laughable! 

But, obviously, I wasn’t laughing at the time; all this fear changed me completely. I went from being very confident and outgoing - arrogant, perhaps - to feeling like a pathetic loser, cowering in my room and never wanting to interact with the scary world outside. I had no desire to talk to strangers, no matter how friendly they were (after all, if they were being so friendly, what were they up to?), and if I could help it, I didn’t really want to leave my flat.

I couldn't leave work in the evening without double, triple and quadruple checking my Sent folder in Outlook, to ensure that I hadn't called anyone a cunt in an e-mail and forgotten all about it.

And to add to all of this, I had a voice inside me the whole time, telling me that I deserved to feel this way. I had treated people like shit at university - especially my ex - and throughout my teens I had disregarded people's feelings as if they didn't even matter; so this must have been my punishment, and it was fair, so I would just have to take it.

I'm sure my mum wouldn't have agreed. I had talked about some of what was going on in my head to my family and a couple of close friends, and while it helped to get the little things off my chest, I didn't want to burden them with it all, and I needed to let the rest out before I became a hermit, locked indoors for fear of immediate destruction if I ever left the house. 

So, my mum found me a counsellor, who I began to see once a week, just to talk through my issues. 

And she was brilliant - exactly the person I needed. She made me think about things differently, showed me where I might be going wrong in my thought processes and taught me new ways to look at the things I was imagining and making real in my temporarily twisted head.

Not that time with her was a magical instant cure. It was a long process, and it was often painful and scary and sometimes I couldn't even face going to see her, because I just wanted to hide away and not talk to anyone about my problems, even someone who wanted to help. And nor was it a permanent remedy - over the course of about five years, I went back three times, for a few months of weekly sessions at a time, because those fears just kept slipping back. 

But it was worth it - I would have done anything, paid any amount, for my life to just return to normal. And mostly, it did.

Today, I can get through most days without feeling like someone is going to bug my home, or like I’m going to crash my car and drive away obliviously. Most of the time, I'm pretty much fine. 

But the fear isn’t completely gone. Promoting my books online always fills me with a little bit of paranoia, because it involves something as personal as my written words and ideas, and a lot of strangers who might be offended enough by them that they want to hunt me down and destroy me. 

Sometimes, when I’m tired, I still have to ask my wife if my driving was alright, at the end of a long journey. That there weren't any incidents that I missed. Perhaps even that’s not healthy, but if it keeps away bigger fears, then it’s a small price to pay.

I don’t watch or read the news at all now. It’s the one thing I’d recommend to everyone, whether they’re having mental health problems or not. 99% of the content of the average news broadcast is not directly relevant to your life, and 100% of it is designed to make you feel anxious and worried, so that you’ll keep watching and waiting for that sweet reassurance that everything will be okay, which will never come. But that’s a rant for another time.

I might never be as confident, loud and outgoing as I used to be, and there might be small fears that niggle at me for the rest of my life. But all of that is okay; I know I can get through it all, because I have before. And in one way, this strange chapter in my life did me a favour, by forcing me out of the brash and overconfident habits and personality traits which made me feel like I deserved those issues in the first place (and caused that nasty breakup I mentioned, and all the other things I hate about the person I was before my mid-twenties).

I couldn't have got through it all without the support of my loved ones and counsellor.

So, if you’re feeling sad, or strange, or scared, and you feel trapped and don’t know what to do, my amateur advice is: talk to someone. Anyone. A family member, a friend, a therapist. Just get it off your chest. It will suddenly become a lot lighter, when you let it out. It might not solve the problem, but it will probably become a lot easier to deal with, when you hear the issue out loud and realise that it’s not as big and terrifying as it has become in your head.

You can do it.

Epictetus said: 'Man is not worried by real problems so much as by his imagined anxieties about real problems.' It might not be that simple in every case, but for me, it was just as clear as that. Any anxieties my mind creates, my mind can discard, if only I choose to let it.


1. If, having read this, you've suddenly realised that all my strangest stories aren’t as creative as you thought, because they’re all just expressions of my own real life paranoias and fears, you’re absolutely right. A lot of the time when I’m writing, I’m just working out my issues. Writing is a form of therapy for me - when I feel scared, I write a little story, and I make my fears smaller by putting them on the screen of a laptop, and suddenly they’re not towering over me anymore. Even this article is probably just another attempt to exorcise a demon (although publishing it will almost certainly make me feel a bit scared). Try it yourself - paint or sing or write or dance your problems away. I can’t promise it will cure you, but it might help.

2. If you're feeling fine, but you want to know how best to support a loved one who's going through a hard time, then I can only speak from my own experience, but my best advice is simply: Listen. Don't judge, don't laugh, don't say, 'Oh my days, you're getting so weird!' Just hear them out, let them talk it through, then tell them how you see it. Sometimes, all I needed was a calm, rational perspective to help me see just how - for want of a better word - weird I was being.

This year, the theme for World Mental Health Day is "suicide prevention". 
The following links will take you to websites for organisations who know a lot more than I do, and can provide a lot more help and information than I ever could. 

Have you been waiting for the very cheapest day to start reading the books everyone* is talking about? Are you stuck in the middle of a...

30th Birthday Sale!

Have you been waiting for the very cheapest day to start reading the books everyone* is talking about? Are you stuck in the middle of a literary funk, desperately searching for a new favourite author to read every day**?

Well, today is your lucky day! It's my 30th birthday, so I've started a Kindle Countdown deal which means you could grab all of my books for as little as 99p on and 99c on! The price will gradually rise until May 3rd, so click here to go and download your copy now!

Now, excuse me, while I sulk about aging just as fast as my grandparents said I would...

* or at least, I am talking about...
** for about a week, maybe less if you're a really fast reader.

Look, there I am leaning against a tree in fancy clothes. But that's not the only place I've been this week. I've also b...

Interview on Amy Buckle's Bookshelf

Look, there I am leaning against a tree in fancy clothes.

But that's not the only place I've been this week. I've also been on Amy's Bookshelf, answering questions about books and inspiration and a few things in between.

That's all I wanted to say. Aaron out.

I'm back again, dropping some more bookish wedding ideas like Muse dropping mediocre albums*. Let's go. Bookish Confetti ...

Our Bookish Wedding: Some More Small Bits...

I'm back again, dropping some more bookish wedding ideas like Muse dropping mediocre albums*. Let's go.

Bookish Confetti

If you're of the opinion that books shouldn't be destroyed or damaged willy nilly, then you can rest assured that my new wife and I agree. But there are some people who would argue that some books, like say, Fifty Shades, were just never meant to be read. 

So, if you agree with those people, buy a really shit book from a charity shop - to ease your guilt, you could pick one that looks like it's been sitting there on the shelf for years, never being read - then get yourself a hole punch of any size and shape you want, and get punching. Before long, you'll have a load of lovely confetti.

You really don't need that much. We had a whole bag full, and we didn't even get through a third of it.

Now, if you're planning a wedding, you'll already know that most venues wouldn't actually let you use this as confetti, because it's real paper and not biodegradable niceness. But we didn't want it for that anyway - we sprinkled it all over the tables, as an extra little decoration. It was a lovely little detail in a very beautiful day.

A Bookish Cake

Okay, so this one isn't very original at all. Look on Pinterest, you'll find a thousand of them. But isn't it great? Our one was made by Kelly Rhodes Cakes, and it was absolutely delicious. We still have some of it.

These ideas were ours (or other people's), and now they are yours. Take them, implement them, enjoy them. But don't sell them - that would upset me because you'd get rich and I wouldn't.

Click here to see the rest of our bookish wedding ideas, and click here to buy my books. I have a new one out, you know. You might like it.

*note that I wrote this before the release of Muse's latest album, Simulation Theory, which is actually quite good. If you allow yourself to forget how good Muse used to be.

This story was intended for my new short story collection, Removed Without Warning . You will even notice, if you read it, that it would...

Bringing Her Back (removed from Removed Without Warning)

This story was intended for my new short story collection, Removed Without Warning. You will even notice, if you read it, that it would have given the book its title. However, a few months after I wrote it, my beautiful wife and I watched Black Mirror from beginning to end on Netflix, and I found that one of the episodes was pretty much exactly this story. I mean, really - it's uncanny. What a bloody nightmare! So, although I wrote it before I'd ever seen or heard about that episode, I don't want anyone to think that I'm a shameless plagiarist, so I took the story out, and present it to you here, in its (almost) unedited, first draft form. Enjoy, guys.

If you like it, why not go and buy a copy of Removed Without Warning? It's full of similar stories, none of which were stolen from famous TV shows.

Standing at the door, looking into her eyes, Ken found himself thinking back on what Carl and Catriona had told him. She won’t be the same, they had said, and you don’t want to bring her back and regret it later. But as Lilly stood on the doorstep, looking at him with those big eyes and familiar half-smile, all doubt was banished, and he knew that they were wrong.
  She was the same.
  ‘Can I come in?’ She asked, eventually.
  ‘Oh,’ he said, his voice as thin and shaky as a teenager’s, ‘yes. Of course.’
  She walked past him into the hallway, and it took no small amount of effort to stop himself from grabbing her and holding her as tightly as he could, breathing her in like a drug to which he had long yearned to become addicted once again. Instead, he stood as still as he could, and their staring continued, awkward and insecure. His heart thumping with excitement, his palms wet and warm against his hips. 
  She had been gone for so long and her departure had been so quick and unexpected that to have her back now seemed too good to be true, like he had come around to find himself in a dream from which he never wanted to wake. He wanted to laugh, cry, run in circles; but he settled, after gathering some courage, on simply closing the gap between them, and holding her. After a few seconds, she embraced him too, and her touch was cleansing, like a shower after a long day.
  When they were done, he stepped back and looked into her eyes once more. ‘I’m glad you’re back,’ he said, ‘I’ve missed you. So much.’
  ‘I’m glad to be back,’ she replied, his hand clasped in hers. ‘I missed you more.’
  They had told him that when she came back, he should give her space and time to reacquaint herself with the house; so, after their short reunion, he left, to run some errands and to drive around in circles, trying to calm himself down. Meanwhile, she spent the day familiarising herself with the house she used to keep – running her finger along surfaces and looking behind and underneath pieces of furniture; sticking her head into storage spaces and sorting through cupboards to catalogue their contents. She spent the best part of an hour turning taps on and off, gauging the water pressure in different parts of the house. 
  By early evening, with her mapping of the territory complete, she set about making a meal. She was back in the house she had always known, with the man she had always loved; and now that she was here, she would never leave him feeling lonely or sad again.

It took barely a week to settle back into their old routines, and after a month, he had almost forgotten the devastating void of life without her. They sat together in the evenings and watched their favourite shows; they laughed at each other’s pitiful jokes while they washed up the dishes; and he even discovered an added bonus: it no longer sent her into a fit of ranting rage when he left his slippers on the floor by the sofa. 
  Life was bearable again; those black clouds which had hung so heavy and low, for so many months, had finally cleared.
  So, it was without a second thought that he accepted a dinner invitation to Carl and Catriona’s, and told them that Lilly would be coming with him. ‘Oh,’ said Catriona, uncertainty drenching her voice, ‘yes. I suppose that’s fine. Yes, of course it is. Of course.’
  Yes, of course it was fine. They had always done everything together before, so why wouldn’t they do so now? If she hadn’t been invited, he simply would not have gone. 
  They left early, and on the way, she suggested that they pick up a bottle of wine. She had forgotten to do so earlier, she said, and she simply couldn’t turn up without one. Ken grinned at her from the driving seat. ‘I’ll stop by the supermarket,’ he said, and squeezed her leg gently. Old routines returning, just as they had been before. He hummed as he drove, a tuneless song of utter contentment.
  When they arrived, Catriona opened the door, and her smile was anxious and unconvincing. At first, she avoided Lilly’s eyes, choosing instead to look into Ken’s and rock on her feet nervously; but she blushed and giggled as she took the gift out of Lilly’s hands and received an enthusiastic kiss on the cheek. A giggle of relief, as if she too was experiencing what Ken had over a month before: that Lilly was back, and that far from being regrettable or pitiable, this was a positive thing for all who knew her.
  She was right, of course; Ken could have told her that weeks ago. 
  Over dinner, they drank and laughed and shared stories, and Lilly listened – really listened – and nodded and grinned and begged for more details, just as she had before on a thousand different occasions. Like she had never been gone.
  Ken found himself so relaxed, in fact, that he was shocked into sobriety when, during dessert, his wife’s memory was tested for the first time since her return. How he had gone a whole month without reminiscing about some event or other, he did not know; but he wished he had when Carl pointed at Lilly, without even thinking about it, and asked, ‘Oh God, that time in Mykonos, when the waiter poured your entire dinner down the front of your dress, do you remember that?’
  Lilly looked confused for a moment, and the room seemed to fall deathly silent. It might not have even been a second, but to Ken it dragged out like minutes, his heart pounding in his ears and fear pushing acid up his throat. She would not remember, and Carl and Catriona would tell him again that he had made a mistake, that he was wrong to bring her back. It had been going so well…
  But then she said, ‘Ooooh, Christ. I loved that dress so much. It was ruined!’
  Catriona laughed. ‘And we were supposed to be going dancing later. Your face! I thought you were going to kill him!’
  ‘Hey! What do you mean supposed to? We still went. I think I made sauce stains look rather fashionable.’
  ‘People were staring at you like you were a mentalist. That was such a fun holiday.’
  ‘They were staring because of my dance moves; the dress just completed the spectacle.’
  The women laughed, Carl shook his head, and Ken discovered that he hadn’t breathed since the conversation began. He allowed himself to laugh, and it spilled out of him like it had been bottled up and shaken, ready to pop at any moment.
  When they left, Catriona became emotional. She told Lilly that it was so good to have her back, and that they must go out some time, just the two of them. ‘I’d love that,’ Lilly replied, holding her old friend’s hand and leaning in conspiratorially, ‘I’m getting sick of the sight of Ken already.’
  Catriona laughed harder than the joke deserved, and in doing so, allowed a tear to escape. ‘I’m so glad you brought her back,’ she said to Ken, who beamed like a schoolboy winning a prize.

It wasn’t only Carl, Catriona and Ken who were pleased she had returned. The neighbours would wave from across the street, and Lilly would beam at them in return, calling kind words and telling their children to be good at school. The local cats began to visit again, waiting at the back door to be fed by the one lady on the street who had never had cats of her own but always had cat food. The first time Eddie, the postman, had to knock to deliver a package, he stood gawping blankly for a while before stuttering, ‘I-I didn’t know you were back, Mrs H. I’m so happy to see you.’ It seemed like he was choking up.
  And as if it had not already been perfect before she was taken from him, removed without warning by a condition they never knew she had, Carl’s relationship with Lilly only improved. He was no better a man than he had been when she left, but still she seemed to dote on him more than she ever had. She would pick up the mess he left around the house as if she were happy to be kept busy by the task, and if he failed to do his fair share of chores – as he often did – then she picked up the slack without complaint or delay. Issues which might have developed into arguments before – big or small – were now things that washed over Lilly unnoticed, as if she had only ever pretended that they irritated her in the first place, and she was now prepared to simply let them go.
  He could not remember a time – in fact, he was sure that there had never been a time, even when they first met – when their relationship had been so blissful. So, after a couple more weeks of psyching himself up, he was finally ready to invite his daughter for Sunday lunch.

‘I can’t believe you’ve done this,’ she hissed, her face a furious shade of pink.
  Her husband was helping Lilly with the washing up, the grandchildren playing in the lounge. They sat alone in the dining room, a pathetic old father cowering from an enraged, humiliated daughter. Anger as hot as her mother’s used to be.
  Dinner had been nice. He had not expected this ambush.
  ‘Why not, Alison?’ He asked, trying desperately to hold his ground. ‘Why shouldn’t I be happy? Why should I live out my last years alone in this house, wishing I hadn’t lost the love of my life?’
  ‘It’s… sick,’ she replied. ‘It’s an insult to her memory. And it’s not healthy for you either, y’know. Replacing mum with some bloody robot to get over your grief, it’s not right.’
  ‘She’s not a robot, she’s your mother. And you talk about it like I just decided to bring her back on a whim when I got home from the funeral. It wasn’t like that at all.’
  ‘Oh no? What was it like then? When did you come up with this disgusting plan?’
  Ken straightened his shirt, sat up. ‘If you must know,’ he said, ‘we’ve been planning it for years. Since we first heard you could do this. Your mother and I went for a TruLife consultation after we saw it on the telly, and we went regularly for months for them to profile us, capture our personalities and our memories and things like that. We agreed that neither of us could live without the other, so we were ready to bring each other back whenever we needed to.’
  Down the hall, in the kitchen, he could hear Lilly and Thom laughing, as plates and cutlery clattered between them. They had never got on before her death.
  Alison stared at her father, her face twisted in a pained expression of disbelief and pity. She sighed. ‘But she’s not the same, dad.’
  ‘Yes, she is. If anything, she’s better than she’s ever been. She never gets angry with me anymore, she’s always in a good mood. Remember how angry she used to get? She’s happy, healthy, and she’s making me happy too. And she loves you and the kids, just like she used to. Don’t you want your children to grow up knowing their grandmother?’
  Alison put her head in her hand, rubbed her forehead like she was trying to pull off her skin. ‘Not after they already attended her funeral, dad. I shudder to think what this will do to their mental health, what issues they’ll have when they grow up now. And anyway, that’s not their grandmother, it’s a robot done up to look like her. Don't you think it's wrong that she doesn't get angry? It’s weird, dad.’
  ‘She’s not a robot,’ he snapped, slamming his fist on the table. He found himself to be shaking, his cheeks hot and fists clenched. He took a breath, to calm himself down. ‘She’s a human being. Almost every part of her is biological, it’s only the brain they can’t recreate. That’s your mother in there, Alison, and I want you to accept that she’s back, whether you like it or not.’
  They could hear her approaching, Thom following, bowls and desserts in hand. ‘Kids,’ Lilly called, as she walked up the hallway toward the dining room, ‘come and get some pudding, if you want some.’
  Alison sat back in her chair, her brow furrowed and her stare intense. The silence in the room was thick with resentment and rage, awkward and simmering. But Thom and Lilly hardly noticed as they entered – they were still grinning from a joke they had shared on the way.
  ‘Right,’ said Lilly, once they had placed all the food and crockery on the table, ‘Alison, you first. We have cheesecake, pecan pie, or lemon meringue. What would you like?’
  Wowee. A bit of each, please,’ Alison replied, smiling widely, a pantomime performance for Ken’s benefit. He clicked his knuckles beneath the table, his leg shaking.
  Lilly cut a slice of each dessert, humming a tune to herself as she did. Long gone were the days when she would have admonished her daughter for being piggish, and told her that no, she could not have one piece of everything.
  ‘Wow, thanks mum,’ Alison said, as she rose and took the heavy dessert from her mother’s hand. The slices were generous, fighting for space in the bowl. ‘This looks delicious.’
  But she did not sit back down or put the bowl on the table. She just stood there, holding her pudding, looking at her father as if she might present the bowl to him as a reward for some unknown feat. An awkward moment passed, in which everyone in the room waited for her to take take her seat or to make some stirring speech, and for a few seconds she just looked between her father and her food, as if she had forgotten what she intended to do next.
  In the end, she must have decided, because she smiled, and nodded, and winked at her father. She turned up the bowl and let her thick slices of dessert fall wetly onto the surface of the table, slapping cream and sugar and cheesecake all across the tablecloth. Thom stood gawping at her, and Ken slammed his fists on the table again, fizzing with speechless rage.
  ‘Whoops,’ said Lilly, a sweet smile on her face. She rolled her eyes like she had just seen someone make a silly mistake that everyone makes, at one point or another. ‘Let’s get that cleaned up.’
  ‘No,’ said Ken, standing with trembling knees. He pointed at the door, in which Alison’s two children stood staring in shocked amusement at the scene they had walked in on. Perhaps they thought it was a game – a real life food fight, like they only ever saw in films and on TV. But if it was, the adults weren’t having fun playing it. ‘I want you to leave. I won’t have you treating your mother like this. Get out.’
  Lilly began to protest. ‘Oh, Ken, don’t be–’
  ‘Out,’ Ken repeated to his daughter. Thom began to gather the children up, shuffle them toward the front door. He clearly knew what had gone on while he had been out of the room, what his wife had been waiting all day to discuss, and had no interest in involving himself in the family drama.
  Alison walked around the table and out of the room slowly, smirking like the universe had proven her point for her. And to her, it had – before her death, Lilly would have been as furious as Ken was that their daughter had done something so incredibly rude and destructive; but now, she had been gutted, that fire in her heart snuffed out. She had accepted such a blatant insult with a smile on her face, and offered to clean it up without a second thought. If Alison’s father still thought that woman was his wife, back from the dead, then he was more deluded than she had thought.
  But Ken was too furious to consider what this meant or why it had happened. He just stood in silence, as Thom put coats on the children and led them out the door, and Alison ignored her mother’s goodbyes, still so polite and kind, despite all that had gone on.

He spent a long time after that disastrous lunch stewing on what she had said and done. He was hurt that she could not see why they had agreed to bring each other back, angry that she had gone to such lengths to humiliate him into realising his mistake. He did not see why she should resent her mother wanting to shed the personality traits she never liked in herself, when she had the chance. Or why she would resent him the opportunity to be happy once again. Had he thought of it at the time, he would have told her the traits he had told TruLife not to replicate for him, if he had been the first to go: his laziness around the house; his inability to ever finish a DIY job; his fear of big dogs. Lilly had wanted to be less angry, and now she was. Alison should be pleased for her.
  But she probably wouldn’t care. She was too self-absorbed to notice the good that it had done, bringing Lilly back when Ken needed her most. She was too concerned with what was right, what was “healthy”, as if there was an objective measure of health which Ken had failed to meet.
  These thoughts became an obsession, a sad song on repeat in his brain, and over the following weeks, he became despondent. He would slip into grumpy sulks, staring out of the kitchen window or into the fire in the lounge, and sit there for hours wondering how to fix his family, how to show his daughter that her mother’s return was a positive thing. Meanwhile, Lilly would vacuum around him, pick up his discarded clothes and wash them, try to cheer him up with delicious meals. Never complaining, forever glad to be home.
  Until one day, while she was washing up and he was standing a few feet away, not helping, just staring through the kitchen window out at the garden, and he asked, ‘Why did you just let her do that?’
  ‘Let who do what?’ She replied, pausing with a plate in her hand, suds sliding down its face and dripping into the sink.
  ‘Alison. Why did you let her throw food all over our home, and just stand there saying nothing? Did you not feel embarrassed?’
  She shrugged, smiled like she thought he had wildly misinterpreted the whole silly thing. ‘Oh,’ she said, ‘she didn’t mean it.’
  ‘She looked us in the eyes and tipped it over the table! How could that be an accident?’
  ‘I don’t know. Maybe she was having a turn. It’s really no big deal; I haven’t given it any more thought.’
  ‘Why not? How could you not have given it more thought? Why doesn’t anything matter to you anymore?’
  For a moment, it looked like a ray of negativity might finally have broken through the easy-going fog of her eternal contented smile, and she seemed to look hurt. She said, ‘Things still matter to me. It matters that you’re happy and healthy.’
  ‘And what about you? Why don’t you want to be happy and healthy anymore? Why would you let people walk all over you for the sake of my happiness?!’
  He was becoming frustrated, his heart rate rising. He felt like he was shouting into a void, receiving answers so mystifying that they might as well have never come.
  ‘I don’t mind. I’m just glad she’s well. As long as you’re happy, and Alison is happy, and those beautiful children are happy, then I’m happy too.’
  Very suddenly, he lost control of his frustration, and grabbed her by the shoulders. He shook her, not violently, but enough to shock the smile off of her face. ‘Why have you lost your spark?’ He yelled, his voice cracking and choking, ‘Where is my wife?! Is she in there or not?!’
  When he was done, he recoiled from her, as if he had burned his hands on her skin. He looked down at them like they had grabbed her on their own, and he was wondering how he could get them under control. He stood and he shook and he felt so ashamed, so sickened by himself and his actions. He wished he had never invited his daughter to the house, wished he could go back and decide not to start this conversation.
  He wanted to hold his wife, to apologise for what he had just done and said; but when he looked up at her, she was smiling once again. She had already forgiven him, already forgotten what he had done. This woman was not his wife – his wife would never have let him go that far, would never let him live it down if he had.
  He stomped out of the room, and out of the front door.

‘You’re through to Deborah. How can I help?’
  He cleared his throat. ‘Hello, I’d like to make a return please.’
  Deborah paused. ‘Erm, can I have your account number?’
  Ken propped his phone between his ear and his shoulder, shuffled through the wad of papers in front of him. ‘Yes, I have it somewhere here… here it is, it’s 0188291022-F.’
  ‘Thank you, let me just bring up your details here. Okay, Mr Webber, looks like you accepted delivery on 17th July, so nearly four months ago. I hope it’s all going well for you?’
  Ken looked over his shoulder, checking that Lilly was not poking her head around the door of the shed. He knew she was out having lunch with Catriona, but still he lowered his voice to a whisper. ‘No, actually, it’s going very badly. I’d like to return her.’
  ‘Return her? Can I ask what the problem is, sir?’
  ‘She isn’t my wife.’
  ‘Sorry, Mr Webber, I’m not sure what you mean.’
  ‘This woman is not my wife. She’s nothing like her.’
  ‘I’m very sorry to hear that. Could you elaborate a little bit for me? Only, it says here you received a check-in call after a month and you were very happy with her. I have “strongly agree” marked against all the questions.’
  ‘Yes, well, that was before I knew that half her personality was missing. She used to have passion, get angry, give me attitude. Now she walks around with this… this… insipid smile on her face all the time. Nothing bothers her!’
  Deborah was tapping on her keyboard, clicking her mouse loudly. She took a long time to respond. ‘It says in your case notes that you both agreed in consultation that these personality traits could be removed. I see her signature on a statement saying that she doesn’t like these aspects of herself, and is happy for them to be omitted in the event of having to be brought back.’
  ‘Yes, I know what she said, I was there. But she’s not her without them. She’s not the woman I loved. She’s this pathetic… shell. I want her anger back, I want her to shout at me for leaving my slippers on the living room floor, I want her to spend half the day not talking to me because I didn’t put the rubbish out in time!’
  Deborah paused again. ‘I see. I’m sorry, Mr Webber, but there’s nothing we can do. She’s been operational far too long for reprogramming to be effective, and besides, we wouldn’t reintroduce traits that people have asked us to omit anyway. Not when they’ve signed them away.’
  Ken felt himself beginning to shout, all discretion forgotten. ‘Well then take her back! I want to return her!’
  ‘We don’t accept returns, sir.’
  ‘What do you mean you don’t accept returns?! Take her back! I don’t want her like this!’
  ‘Well, with respect, let me put it this way: what would we do with her?’
  ‘I don’t know. Destroy her. Recycle her parts. Whatever you want!’
  ‘Mr Webber, she’s almost entirely biological. She is a life form, nearly human. To destroy her would be murder, and murder is strictly against company policy.’
  Perhaps it was the absurdity of her answer, or perhaps it was the impasse at which he found himself; but whatever it was, Ken found his eyes beginning to fill with tears, a thick stopper lodging itself behind his Adam’s apple.
  He began to cry.
  ‘Please,’ he said, ‘please take her back.’
  He had lost her once, all those months ago, and it had torn his life in two. He had never thought he could survive without her, and he had found that theory to be true in the short time between the funeral and when he brought her back. He had been in pieces for weeks, so lost and alone that he had not even wanted to get out of bed in the morning. But he would rather lose her again, and live through that devastating, soul-macerating pain, than live with this pale imitation of his soulmate for the rest of his life. He would rather sit in that old house on his own forever remembering the worst of her, all the fights and the stubbornness and the times she threatened to leave, than live with this constant reminder that he had tried to bring her back and failed, because the real Lilly was gone and was never coming back. 
  He felt helpless and hollowed, sitting in his shed with his head in his hands and his phone to his ear, crying and begging for mercy from an indifferent customer service agent. He sobbed freely and loudly, like he had when he lost her the first time. Like he was losing her all over again.
  ‘Please,’ he said again, ‘take her back.’