In my head, the world of Cold Hard Hugs has a surprisingly complex (read: bloated and overthought) backstory for WHY living machines are around and a bunch of other related nonsense, too.
NONE of it relates in ANY WAY to the story here (not to mention tonally completely different), and the main character is too incurious to ask or look into it anyway, so it’ll probably never come up. But it’s there, lurking, being far too weird.
What did any of that actually mean? What actually changed? Nothing. Everything.
Following our tête-à-tête both Tillie and myself were a little dazed. And giggly. There was a lot of giggling. I smiled a bunch because I couldn’t stop myself and Tillie’s lights got so bright it was hard to tell what colour they were actually supposed to be.
It was also lunchtime. This didn’t really factor in much, at least until my stomach rumbled. Tillie heard this, and despite my protests, insisted that she make lunch for me. I didn’t really want her going out of her way or anything – or having to use the kitchen for the first time – but she would not take any of my various ‘no’s and ‘it’s alright’s for an answer and pushed ahead regardless, sitting me down on the sofa with strict instructions to wait until she was done. An unusual and novel turn of events.
I don’t know why, but I had in my head that Tillie would be alright with food. No experience, yes, but she’d always struck me as someone who just knew how to do anything she wanted to do at the time she wanted to do it. I thought food – lunch of all things – would be a doddle.
It was not. She did horrible, horrible things.
I have no idea how she did what she did to whatever ingredients she used, but they were types of suffering that nothing in a fridge should ever have to go through. She called me to the kitchen in something of a panic once it was obvious events had got out of hand for her, but they then it was far, far too late to rescue it. We both stood by the bin in solemn silence as we attempted to scrape it off the plate. We ended up having to throw the plate away as well, though thankfully the pots and pans could be saved.
We looked at each other after this and started giggling again, because we couldn’t help it, and then we both ended up on the sofa together with a film inexplicably playing on the television. And it wasn’t even Wednesday! Clearly the rulebook was up in tatters. We were writing them fresh now! Or maybe I was just giddy with hunger. Whatever it was, it was fun. Far more fun than any of what we were doing had any right to be.
As she snuggled back into me and I held onto her, she craned her neck around to peer up at me. Lenses, again lenses. Did not look anywhere near as odd as the first time I’d seen them. Familiar now – comforting almost. Odd. Maybe there was something wrong with me. Maybe maybe.
“Did you kiss me earlier?” She asked.
“You only just noticed?” I asked, my riposte immediate. Take that, Tillie.
“I thought I imagined it.”
“Nope. It happened. Top of the head, just a peck. You felt it?”
“Would you rather I hadn’t?”
“No, I liked it. Or I think I did. You should do it again. To check.”
She lowered her head slightly and I planted another tiny little kiss right on the top before sitting back again. She tilted her head one side, then the other, nodded sagely and then looked up at me once more.
“Yes, I definitely like it. Thank you.”
“You’re an odd one,” I said as she shuffled down in place, draping her tail over the end of the sofa and getting her herself down so she was pretty much just resting on my belly.
What qualified as ‘comfortable’ for a living-machine anyway? I doubted all of this moving around was for show, but I doubted it for purely arbitrary reasons. Then again, if those tactile sensors of hers were acute enough to notice me giving the tiniest of smooches to her head, then maybe she could get legitimately uncomfortable if she sat a certain way. I should ask her about it, really. Would I? No, probably not.
“I can’t believe this is happening…” she said.
“I know, right? It’s not even Wednesday and we’re watching something together,” I said and she gave me a smack to the leg, but she had no leverage so there was no real force behind it.
“Quiet you. You know what I mean.”
“I do. I really do.”
We watched the film in the kind of blissful, happy silence that comes from not needing to say anything to fill the void. The light outside was dreary. It started to spit with rain. What had started out a beautiful day had changed within the space of five minutes into a dark, grey, depressing one in the way only a British day could. The film wasn’t even that good. Things were perfect though. Just perfect. I wouldn’t have changed anything. Everything was wonderful.
Wonderful at least until the temperature started to drop, roundabout the time the second film started up (what else did we have to do? Work? Madness. Like we had work to do). The lounge was not properly insulated, for whatever reason, or at least it sure didn’t feel like it was. Looking at it from the outside I imagined it used to have been something else, like a garage for a very small car, or had been an extension that hadn’t been done right.
It hardly mattered. Point was, it got very cold inside when it got even a bit cold outside. It was bizarre. You could be inside and freezing to death, only to step out and find that it wasn’t even that bad. Probably how ice-houses worked, really. None of this was helped by the gap around the window either, which the landlord said he was hot onto to fix and had been hot onto to fix for some time now.
The upshot of this was that I was getting chilly on the sofa, and while Tillie wasn’t a hunk of ice, she wasn’t exactly as warm to hold as a flesh-and-blood person might have been. Maybe I wriggled the wrong way, as she noticed my sudden discomfort.
“Are you cold?” She asked. Tillie seemed more concerned with my body temperature on a moment-to-moment basis than I was. In fact, her concern with my welfare in general was baffling. But adorable.
“I’m fine,” I said, shivering, hoping she wouldn’t notice.
“You’re shivering,” she said. Well that worked out great.
“Okay, maybe just a tiny bit cold.”
Quick as a flash Tillie did something I had never seen her do, which was basically just a complete one-eighty turn on the spot, tail whipping around to give her just enough momentum to do it. She had gone from resting comfortably with her back on me to being practically face to face in the time it took most people to think about starting to turn around. I was alarmed.
“Would you like a blanket?” She asked with great intensity, her eyes (lenses, whatever – semantics) barely inches from mine.
“You have blankets?” I asked. She nodded.
“Uh, sure?” I said, which must have been taken by her as a firm ‘yes’ as she immediately shot off the sofa and out of the room. I sat perfectly still, a little taken aback by events. I did pause the film though, because that’s just courtesy.
I could hear Tillie shuffling about at speed in her room and a minute or two later she came back carrying an enormously thick blanket which she unceremoniously dumped on me in a big bundle without unfolding it. Helpful, I thought, starting to open it up myself. It was pretty nice, actually. It radiated coziness.
“I am surprised you have blankets,” I said as laid it out over my legs and then flipped it away so she could slide back in. Once she did, the blanket went back into place over both of us, which was glorious. Never had I felt so snuggled in all my life.
“I like blankets. This is my favourite I’ve made.”
Having been playing with a corner of the thing – it was beaded! – I paused.
“You made this?” I asked.
“I knitted it, yeah,” she shrugged. I goggled, looking at the corner of blanket between my fingers with renewed reverence. This was unexpected.
“You knit?!” I asked, unable to hide my shock. But not my horror, as there was none, only awe. This gave more evidence to my theory that Tillie could do just about anything she felt like; a theory that had taken something of a hit with the horrible, unmentionable mess she had made of dinner.
“Sometimes. I got bored a lot before you showed up,” she said, maybe a little defensively. I had to admit this was a good reason to knit, though presumably it’s a fine thing to do even when not bored. I don’t know, I’m not a knitter. All fingers and thumbs, me, and none of them are good at knitting.
“Well, I guess that makes sense,” I said, releasing the corner and taking her with both arms again. I then remembered the film was still paused, reached out to start it again, and then put my arms back around her. I’m an idiot, basically. Not that Tillie seemed to care, sinking back into me almost at once.
“You’ve never seen all the stuff I knitted? It’s all over my room.”
I tried to bring a picture of Tillie’s room to my mind but failed immediately because I had never seen it. That she thought I had was probably just a slip-up on her part.
“I’ve, uh, never seen your room. Remember?” I asked. She took a second.
“Oh. Oh yeah. I remember,” she said. The film burbled on. Something exploded on-screen, which was pretty great. It had probably been important to someone bad. Or maybe important to someone good and avenging its detonation would be integral to the plot. It was hard to say. But still great.
“Would you like to see it?” She asked.
“Your room? Sure. You want to see mine?”
Something else exploded. Some people ran around and shot stuff. Some lesser people shot at them but because they weren’t main characters they didn’t hit anything and they died not long afterwards, usually falling over railings when they did. This was pretty great too. I made a mental note to watch this film more often, whatever it was.
“Which do we do first?” Tillie asked after some more violence on-screen.
“Yours,” I said, emphatically.
“Because mine is boring. It’s just full of stuff. Yours is probably fully of better stuff,” I said, as though this made perfect sense. She tittered.
“Alright, can’t argue with that. Want to go now?”
“Sure, lead on,” I said, and so she did. It was a mark of just how straight-up cavalier we were now that neither of us bothered to pause the film. We could probably guess what was going to happen anyway. Someone would win, probably the good guy. It was nice like that.
Tillie’s room was just around the corner and so it took both of us mere seconds to get there, though as we approached the door I felt the oddest sense of excitement building in the pit of my stomach. So strong was the odd feeling that it almost overwhelmed the hunger still prowling around in the bottom of my belly. Excitement was a bit of an odd reaction though, I thought. It was just a room, I told myself, but this did little to lessen it, and it only got stronger as she opened the door and I followed her in.
I was not sure what I had been expecting of Tillie’s room. I’d always pictured it as rather like anyone else’s room, just without the stuff Tillie wouldn’t need. Clothes, for example. So she’d have more space, but what would she fill it with, I wondered? Not much, was the answer. She had all the sort of things I might have expected – books, an astonishingly neat desk against one wall (with no chair, I noticed) and so on – but since the room had clearly been made for someone flesh-and-blood in mind that just left Tillie with things she had no use for and which were empty, such as the wardrobe. It was a little sparse, to sum it up, and with the curtain drawn it was dark even with the light on.
“It’s not that impressive,” she said sheepishly, hands clasped together. I put on as brave a face as possible and smiled, an arm going around her shoulders.
“I’m impressed. Do I get a tour?” I asked. She gave me a flat look – again, very easy for her to do – and then caved.
It was not a long tour, obviously. I got a proper look at just how empty her drawers and the wardrobe were, a sheepish explanation of the meticulous system of organisation she used for her work and the desk (which put me to shame, of course, I a devoted follower of the ‘heap of stuff’ method of desk organisation), a slightly interesting glance over her heaps of dog-eared, bargain-bin schlock books and then finally around to the final corner of the room.
“And that’s where I go on standby,” she said, pointing to the large and obviously well-used nest of pillows and blankets piled up in the corner of the room. It was the least neat and tidy part of the place, and therefore the part I identified with most. It looked very cozy, and I grinned when she said ‘standby’, but the lack of a bed made me feel a bit sad for reasons I couldn’t quite fathom. As nice as I’m sure it was to – ahem – go on standby in a big heap of knitted softness, the lack of a real bed just seemed to leave a void. Maybe it was me.
“You make those ones, too?” I asked, nodding at the blankets and such.
“Yeah. Not the pillows.”
“Well obviously, pillows take years of practise” I said and she gave a short laugh.
“When I was here on my own, before you, sometimes I would come home and put all the blankets on top of me and just stay there for a while. Once, I stayed there for a whole day. I don’t think anyone noticed.”
She’d said all this rather simply, as though it wasn’t a big deal. Leaving aside that she had apparently been living here on her own before – the financial ramifications of which I was sure had a good explanation – that she had taken to hiding on her own for hours on end was horrifying to me. I gaped.
“What? Why?!” I asked, appropriately aghast. She shrugged.
“I didn’t have anything else to do. And I didn’t want to go have to go out, I had nowhere to go. I sort of hoped someone might notice, but no-one said anything so I don’t think they did.”
I was still horrified on a very baseline level. Taking her by the shoulders I swivelled her to face me, bending a little so were on the level.
“That’s never happening again, okay? You and me will always have something to do and I will certainly notice if you disappear. I’ll get antsy if you leave the room for more than five minutes, okay?”
Her lights went a deep pink and she nodded.
“Okay,” she said.
“Good. That aside, that big heap does look comfortable…” I said, eyes wandering over to it. It beckoned to me with promises of warmth and snuggliness. Alluring knitted siren of wool and pillows.
“Oh, it is!” Tillie said cheerfully.
“Could we – could I – maybe find out…how comfortable?” I asked, waggling eyebrows because why not.
“You want to what?” Tillie did not understand what the eyebrows meant. Probably because she didn’t have any. Poor girl.
“Get in there, under those,” I said, adding as an afterthought: “with you.”
Her lights blinked and flickered a moment as she processed this. I was expecting another question and was braced for that, but what I got instead was Tillie grabbing me by the collar and dragging both of us into the nest in a tumbling tangle. I yelped, but it was lost in the scuffle as blankets and pillows went this and that way and we were burrowed down deep.
Somehow it worked, and through some mild struggle we emerged, snug, comfy and facing one another. One of Can go her arms had tucked in under me and the other sort of just curled up uselessly between us the way someone’s arm always ends up being in the way, while I just straight-up held her. The support from the blankets was fabulous. I would tip my hat to Tillie for her knitting abilities had I been wearing a hat and had my arms not been full of, well, her.
“What do we do now?” She asked. She really was very close to me – or me to her; those lenses maybe three or four inches away, if that. She sounded hushed.
“Nothing, really. We stay like this until we get sick of it,” I said with a mild shrug. I didn’t have much experience to draw on but in what limited form I had, that was generally how it was meant to work out. Tillie sighed happily and sunk into the nest a bit deeper, curling up closer to me.
“I don’t think I can get sick of this,” she said.
“Then we’ll be here a while then.”
I felt her tail wrap around the bottom of my legs. Not a lot, but enough for me to notice what an unusual thing it was to happen. Cute though, in its way. I watched as the weird little iris aperture things inside her lenses closed. Like she was closing her eyes. Again, cute, in its unique way. The tail tightened and it felt as though she was trying to keep from slipping away.
I could get used to this, I thought. Different, but not bad. Not bad in the slightest.
Giving her a squeeze I said nothing, because there wasn’t really anything I could say that would make it any better than it already was.