For fans of THE ROSIE PROJECT and THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHTTIME, a broken man and his damaged robot build an unlikely friendshipwith some assembly required.
Ben's really great at failing at thingshis job, being a husband, taking the garbage out. But then he finds a battered robot named Tang in his garden. And Tang needs Ben.
More ornery and prone to tantrums than one would expect from something made of gears and springs, Tang desperately must be fixedand he just might be the thing to fix what's broken in Ben. Together they will discover that friendship can rise up under the strangest of circumstances, and what it really means to be human.
Funny, touching, charming, wise, and a bit unusual, A Robot in the Garden is a gem of a first novel, perfect for anyone who has ever found it difficult to connection with the world.
"Our hero is a FANTASTIC and UNFORGETTABLE creation, and so is this absolute marvel of a novel."Neil Smith, author of Bang Crunch and Boo
"An inventive and utterly charming tale...heartwarming."Booklist, Starred Review
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.10(d)|
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A Robot in the Garden
By Deborah Install
Sourcebooks, Inc.Copyright © 2016 Deborah Install
All rights reserved.
"There's a robot in the garden," my wife informed me.
I heard her footsteps a few seconds later, then her head appeared around the bedroom door. I glanced up from the newspaper I was reading in bed to see that look of hers — the one that says you are a continual source of frustration to me.
I looked blank.
"I said, there's a robot in the garden."
With a little sigh, I threw back the duvet and went over to the window that overlooked our unruly back garden.
"Why would there be a robot in the garden? Have you left that bloody gate open again, Amy?"
"If you fixed it, as I keep asking you to," she replied, "then it wouldn't be a problem. Old houses need maintenance, Ben, and so do gardens. If we could just get someone in ..."
I ignored this.
Drawing the curtain back properly, I stared out of the window. Sure enough, there was a robot in the garden.
* * *
It was half past seven in the morning when the robot entered our lives. I didn't need to be up at that time, but since my parents died six years ago — just before I met Amy — I had found it difficult to sleep in in the morning. My house had been their house, my childhood home, and in my head my mother's voice called me from downstairs to "get up and make use of the day" the second I woke up.
I stumbled downstairs after Amy, eyes half-closed and still hoping for a gentle introduction to the day by way of reading the paper. In the kitchen, I found Amy had already staked her claim to it by setting a mug of tea and a cream-cheese bagel down upon the society pages. She was wearing her most severe work clothes — a navy pinstripe pantsuit and bright-white, wide-lapelled shirt paired with vicious heels. Her naturally blond hair was scraped into a perfect roll at the back of her head, and she was wearing full makeup — all of which indicated she had a serious day in court ahead of her. She didn't seem in the mood to converse, so I made myself a strong black coffee and retreated to my study. Not my study ... My father's, I suppose. I had no need for a study as such, but when Amy worked from home in the evenings she preferred to be in the sitting room, and it suited her if I was out of the way.
As I sipped my coffee, I could hear her stacking the dishwasher from the night before, while I turned aimlessly around on my old desk chair — my father's old desk chair — which creaked and protested with every spin. I saw my father's books that lined the study walls rotate around me, the early morning sun highlighting the dust that lived on top of their pages and that emerged every day for a wander around.
I put the radio on to listen to the breakfast show. The sound of highball glasses and dinnerware clinking carried over the top of it and across the hallway, every so often punctuated by the click of high heels stalking across the kitchen, then followed by a short silence as Amy ate her breakfast and drank her tea. It was all done briskly, and I frowned as I tried to remember what she'd told me about today — whether she was expecting a difficult court case to close or another to open.
After a long pause, she called to me, and when I didn't reply she sought me out.
"I said, there's a robot in the garden ..."
* * *
The robot was about four feet two inches tall, by my reckoning, and about half of that wide, with a boxy metal head and body and rivets that seemed like shoddy workmanship, not that I knew what they should look like. He had squat little legs that looked like spray-painted tumble-dryer venting tubes and arms to match, with flat plates for feet and hands that were like the ends of those grabber things that old people have. All in all, he looked the very picture of a school project.
"Do you think it's alive?" Amy asked as we stood peering through the kitchen window.
"Alive? You mean as in sentient? Or alive as in functioning?"
"Just go have a look."
I told her she should go first, as she had been the first to see it. My suggestion drew from my wife the same look she gives me when I propose she buy herself some flowers if she wants some.
"I haven't time for this, Ben. You go." She strode into the sitting room to gather up her papers and briefcase from the coffee table. I went around to the back door, and as I turned the handle I heard the front door slam.
* * *
The robot was sitting under the willow with his back to our window and his legs sticking straight out in front of him. There were droplets of water on his metal casing from the autumn dew, and he looked a fusion of some sort of Japanese fine art and materials from a scrapyard. He did not seem to be moving, but as I drew closer I saw he was looking toward a field of horses beyond our garden. It became clear from the slight side-to-side turns of his head that he was watching them.
I stopped a little way from him and paused. I was unsure how to begin a conversation with a robot. Though we'd never had one in the house while we were growing up, I'd known friends who did, and it was generally reckoned that they weren't too bothered about things like greetings as long as they had a job to do. They were mostly domestic servants — shiny chrome and white-plastic mannequins who pottered around your house doing the vacuuming and making breakfast, and now and then maybe picking up your children from school. My sister had one and my wife wanted one, but I'd never seen the need with only the two of us in the house. Cheaper ones were available too, which were not as shiny and had less functionality. These might only iron your shirts and take your recycling out. But I'd never seen one like this. Even the cheap robots weren't this shabby.
"Er ... hello?"
The robot gave a jolt, startled. He squealed and tried to scramble to his feet but fell with a thud onto his side, exposing a flattened square of grass. As he lay there, soles of his feet toward me, his legs kicked wildly like an upset ladybug. I felt compelled to help him.
"Are you OK?" I asked, pushing him back up into his former sitting position. He swiveled his head toward me and blinked a few times, his domed metal eyelids whirring. Under his eyelids, two shiny spheres flicked up and down as the robot studied me, pupils like camera shutters widening and narrowing according to what he was looking at. Below his eyes sat a nose the size and shape of a LEGO brick, which seemed to me to serve no purpose other than aesthetics. His mouth was a dark rectangular gap that looked to be an old CD drive; the maker had obviously had one spare and gathering dust somewhere, and so put it to good use.
There were little dinks and dents all over him, and if he moved suddenly, his rattling chest panel swung open to reveal a mixture of brass clockwork and intricate computer chips bound up together in a way I couldn't begin to understand. Evidently his creator was an artisan of both the high tech and the old school. At the center of this mechanical mess radiated a light that pulsed rhythmically and that I assumed must be his robot heart. I peered more closely and saw that next to it was a glass cylinder containing a yellow liquid, the function of which was not apparent. On closer examination, I saw a tiny crack in the glass, but I thought no more of it.
As I stood contemplating him in the breeze, I saw just how filthy his bodywork was. From the detritus that was sticking to him, it appeared as though the journey he'd been through to get here had included crossing a desert, a farmyard, and then a city. Since I had no idea where he came from, this could very well have been the case.
I crouched down next to him on the grass. "What's your name?"
He made no response, so I pointed a finger at my chest. "Ben. You are?" Then I pointed to him.
"Tang." His voice was jangly and electronic.
"Tang. Tang. Ac-rid Tang. Tang!"
"OK, OK ... I get it. Why are you in my garden, Tang?"
"It's not August, Tang," I said gently. "It's the middle of September."
"August! August! August!"
I paused for a moment and then tried a different line of inquiry. "Where do you come from, Tang?"
He blinked at me but said nothing.
"Is there anyone I can call to come get you?"
"Excellent, we're getting somewhere. How long are you planning to stay in my garden, Tang?"
"Acrid Tang ... Tang ... Tang ... Tang ... "
I repeated my questions gently.
"Tang! Acrid Tang ... August ... no ... no ... no!" I folded my arms with a sigh.
* * *
When Amy arrived home from work twelve hours later, she opened the back door and waved me in.
"Stay here," I told Tang, though there seemed to be no need. For most of the morning I'd sat in my study and ignored him in case he went away of his own accord, but he hadn't budged. The rest of the day I'd spent going back and forth between the house and the robot, trying to think of ways to get through to him. By the time Amy got back, his obstinacy alone had piqued my interest.
"What's happening?" she asked, then raised an eyebrow as she noted my bottle-green pajama bottoms and old blue dressing gown — the same clothes I'd been wearing when she left the house that morning. She hated that dressing gown; it always smelled musty no matter how many times it was washed.
"Well, it's a boy robot," I said, "or at least it sounds like one, anyway."
"Do they have a gender?"
"Generally, I'm not sure. This one does, though. He's a bit different."
"It certainly is. It's not even a basic model."
"No, I mean he's different as in special."
Amy wrinkled her nose at this and said, "How do you know?"
"I don't know. I just think he is."
"Has it said anything?"
"He said his name was 'Acrid Tang' and something about it being August."
"But it's not August. It's the middle of September."
"I know that. He's really beaten up — he's covered in dents, and he's got a cylinder on his insides with a crack in it."
"Oh great, so it's a broken robot too. That's just perfect."
I didn't react.
Amy softened slightly. "What else did it say?"
"Well, why is it here?"
"I don't know; he wouldn't say."
"Well, how long is it —"
"Look, I don't know that either, all right? We didn't get that far."
Amy narrowed her eyes.
"We can't just let it sit in the garden forever until it rusts. Go talk to it again."
"I've been trying to get through to him all day. You talk to him if you think you can do better."
That look again — like a slapped kitten. I hated it when she ordered me around, but I also valued a quiet life, so finally, despite my frustration, I muttered, "OK" and opened the back door.
* * *
After a week of this, Amy decided that having a second-rate robot in the garden was unsightly and that she didn't want to see him every time she looked out of the kitchen window. I'd managed to get him to talk to me a little, but I hadn't managed to get him to move. Nor had I got very far in finding out where he came from.
"Can't you get rid of it?"
"Because you're the one who's been talking to it."
"But I can't get anything out of him ..."
"Well, it can't stay in the garden."
"How many times are we going to have this argument? If you want to get rid of him, then you find a way."
"I think you like it. I think it's something else to concentrate on rather than finding a job."
"Seriously, Amy, why does every single argument have to be about me being unemployed?"
"If you had a job, then we'd never have to have this argument ..."
"We don't have to have it at all. I don't need a job; you know that."
"Yes, yes, your parents left us plenty enough to live on in their will, but a job isn't just about the money, don't you see?"
"No, I don't. And Tang's a 'him,' anyway, not an 'it.'"
Amy changed tack. "The point is, I'm not having a robot in the garden anymore. Especially one like that."
"What do you mean 'one like that'?"
She gestured at him with her bare, goose-pimpled arm. "You know ... one like that. An old one. A broken one."
"Oh, I see. It would be OK if it were a shiny, top-of-the-range robot, with fingers and toes and a proper face."
"It might be."
At least she was honest.
"Look, you've been insisting we get a robot for ages, and now we've got one. I don't see what the problem is."
"That's like buying an old wreck of a car and asking what the problem is. I wanted an android. What can it do? It doesn't want to do anything but sit and stare at horses. What's all that about? What good is a robot if it's not useful? And if it's broken, then it'll need fixing. Why should we do it?"
"He's not that broken. Don't be so dramatic. And if he does need fixing, then we'll get him fixed."
I told her I didn't know but that I was sure someone out there could do the repair.
Amy threw up her hands in despair, turning away from me to clean the kitchen countertops with extra force. There was silence for a moment, then she mumbled, "Anyway, like I say, I've been asking that we get an android, not a robot."
"What's the difference?"
"There's a world of difference! Like you say: fingers and toes and a proper face, for a start. I want a new one like Bryony's. She showed me the article about it in What 'Bot? It has the latest technology and everything."
Bryony is my sister. She and Amy have been best friends for about five and a half years. Amy and I have been together for five and a quarter years.
"What could it do that this one can't?"
"Well, it could do some work around here, like clean and dust and do the gardening and things. If it could cook too, that would be nice. I can't see this short little box being able to reach the stove, let alone make a meal."
"But you do the cooking."
"Yes, exactly! I spend all day at work, trying to untangle some really difficult legal problems for some very difficult people. The last thing I want when I come home is to have to cook."
"But I've offered to cook for you and you say you don't like anything I make — that it's experimental and unappetizing."
"OK, the second to last thing I want when I come home is to cook. The very last thing I want is to face a plate of your partially cooked bacon."
"I thought you liked bacon."
"I do, but, Ben, you're missing the point! If we had an android, then I wouldn't have to prepare an evening meal and neither would you. I've seen them at friends' houses. You give them a recipe and point them in the direction of the fridge. Reliably good food every time."
"You sound like an advert."
"Oh, don't be so childish."
Her words riled me, and I felt a prickle of irritation up the back of my neck. I knew I should leave the argument alone, but I couldn't.
"Just because all your friends have one you want to have one. I suppose you want one of those bloody Cybervalet things too."
"Of course I don't. Just a normal house android."
"Where would we put it anyway?" I persisted. "They need to go somewhere when they're not working. Don't they need to charge up or something?"
"Yes, and we've got space."
"Where? The dock for Bryony's android takes up a huge amount of space in her utility room, and ours is tiny by comparison. And it needs an expert to plumb it in, or whatever it is they do with it. I just don't see the point."
"No, you don't ... and that in itself is the point. I would like an android not because all my friends have one but because it means I wouldn't have to do everything around the house as well as working in a full-time job."
I just couldn't let this argument go.
"But I don't understand why we need an android for the house. I could do those other things."
"Yes, yes, you could. But you don't, do you?"
"That's not fair, Amy. I do stuff around the house."
"I take the trash out."
"You took the trash out two weeks ago."
"Yes, when the trash collection was due."
"Ben, the trash needs taking out every few days."
"That's ridiculous; they don't fill up that quickly."
"That's because I take them out!"
Amy gave me a long, hard stare. This squabble, like so many others we'd had, was a closed circuit, and the only way to end it was to break out. I returned to the original issue.
"Anyway, what do you suggest I do with this robot ... the one that isn't good enough for you?"
Excerpted from A Robot in the Garden by Deborah Install. Copyright © 2016 Deborah Install. Excerpted by permission of Sourcebooks, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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