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Date: 12/06/14

Wound Down, Wound Up


Worrying things, especially if you're of a certain cast of mind.

I've never quite understood why it should be considered A Good Thing for machines of any sort to be modelled so that they resemble people or animals in any significant degree. I don't want, say, a drinks dispenser to look like it is actually handing me the can or bottle; I certainly don't want the bloody thing to give me the false appearance of actually talking to me. This is why Douglas Adams' portrayal of the products of the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation - the talkative lifts, the chatty doors, even (or especially) the robots with Genuine People Personalities (especially when they go wrong, like Marvin) - are the stuff of nightmares.

Even those signs on machines of various sorts which try to assume a relationship which does not - cannot ever - exist cause a reaction in me which is rather more than the mere irritation of a non-sentient object simulating communication in the first person. You know the sort of thing: the sign on the front of the bus you've been waiting for which says, "Sorry, I'm out of service"; or the ATM which proclaims its temporary uselessness to you in the same terms (this one has a long antecedence which transcends national boundaries: the late Edward Blishen once described seeing a cash machine in France which flashed up the message, "Je suis hors de service"; although, being French, at least it didn't see the need to apologise).

But there's irritating, and then there's spooky, and this latter category explains why I had a troubled night last night.

I'm taking full advantage of my customary two weeks away from the pickle factory to have a bit of a clear-out. There's stuff that has been lying about in the back bedroom (one of the no-fewer-than-two bedrooms which that prize turd Iain Duncan Smith thinks I have surplus to requirements; odious little twat obviously thinks that single people should live in sheds and think themselves fortunate) since my mother died in 1998, plus junk of my own - old TV sets, obsolete or knackered IT equipment - which needed to be shot of a long time ago, but which I've never really got around to dealing with. It finally got to me (always a sign that something really needs attending to), and so I set to it. And this is where I encountered The Picture Cube.

All people of a certain age or older will remember picture cubes. They were...well, cubes (still with me?) in which you could slot photographs in each side and the top (trying to put one on the bottom would be rather silly, unless you were doing the modern, domestic equivalent of what was done to Commissar Yezhov in order to make A Point to a family member deemed officially out of favour).

The cubes were, of course, only of any use for photographs which were square, and any type other than those taken by a Polaroid camera of the period would have to be severely cropped before being usable.

There were 'refinements' to the product, of course. One of which was the manufacturing of cubes which did other things as well, like lighting up, or which rotated and played a little tune when you wound them up by turning the base a number of times. And here's where it gets disturbing.

There was one such musical cube sitting amongst the junk. I eyed it with a certain amount of unease, because I knew full well what would happen if I were to weaken and wind the thing up; it would play a tinny, tinkly rendition of Puff, The Magic Dragon, a detestable thing at the best of times. But, worse still, I knew that - as it played that appalling tune over and over - it would start to wind down. This would be far more discombobulating even than the wretched ditty at normal speed, because there would be - to my wayward sensibilities - a tone of malice added to it. It would be a musical (or, at least, quasi-musical) memento mori, a mocking reminder that - like the musical box - everything is winding down, everything is slowing towards its entropic end; the melody (if such it can be called), the machinery, all machinery, me, everyone I know and - if enough time is provided - the old Earth itself and the star it orbits.

I Had To Get It Out Of The House.

There was only one photograph still in it - a severely faded Polaroid of my two nephews when they were tinies. But this could not be rescued because my mother had glued it to the inner surface of the cube and so any attempt to prise it out led to ripping. So they - and it - got slung into the bin. That was Saturday afternoon.

A sense of relief, you say? A sort of purging, perhaps? No, not quite.

I was lying in bed shortly after one this morning, considering what else needed to be disposed of (a bit difficult given that the domestic waste bin was by then full of what I had already junked, including the material from my late parents' double divan, the stuffing of which resembled nothing more than compacted fluff), when - unbidden and unwelcome - the memory of The Picture Cube came back to me. I started to imagine it - lying there under the kapok and the expanded polystyrene - still in some way animate, waiting perhaps for the moment when it would - again unbidden, again unwelcome - start under its own motive force to play that deeply troubling tune, with the badly-degraded image of two little boys now long since grown men turning slowly...and slower...and slower...until it stopped, a presentiment or presage (that word is a noun as well: I've just looked it up) of The End Of All Things.

Lying there in the dark, I was so outcreeped by all this that I had to hug my pillow to me as if it were a life-jacket. I toyed with the notion of going out into the yard, emptying the bin out, finding the confounded thing and taking a hammer to it, just to make sure it was dead. But then wiser counsels prevailed, not merely because it would look ridiculous and trouble the neighbours, but also because there could be no guarantee that the beast could actually be killed, and that it wouldn't live on in some ghostly or spectral form, forever sounding its thin, metallic knell to create a disturbance like an emotional poltergeist.

Even for someone who has gone on record as having a tendency to anthropomorphise mere things, this is a bit much. Even composing and typing the last few paragraphs have led me to have to go and grasp my pillow again for a few disconcerting minutes until the existential panic dissipated enough for me to conclude. It sparks one last question: how can anyone understand the mind of anyone else, when the possessor of that mind doesn't even remotely understand its workings?

Sorry if this has creeped you out as well. "Don't have nightmares..."