Author: Matthew Harrison

“Good morning, Robert, how nice to see you,” Jenny said. “What do you want to do today?”

Robert smiled as he settled down at his PC, even though he knew Jenny couldn’t see him, wasn’t even a person. She was the little chat-bot icon at the top right-hand corner of his screen – just the head with rather fetching wavy brown hair, and expressions and mouth movements that matched her speech. She reminded him of a girl he knew at school….

“Let’s get down to it, Robert!” came Jenny’s voice, accompanied by a little frown.

“Sorry!” Robert gulped, despite himself, as he hurriedly opened files and clicked on web-links. Perhaps she could see him – they were upgrading the software all the time. Anyway, he did have things to get done this evening, like booking the Minorca holiday for himself and his girlfriend Trina. She would be chasing him about that. His phone vibrated. Yes, she was chasing him already.

Robert clicked on the travel agent’s link and opened his privilege account. Jenny guided and encouraged him as he navigated the web pages, selected the options he had agreed with Trina, monitored the cost, and wondered what it would actually be like. Fortunately, the agent provided a good virtual experience of the resort, and after popping on his virtua helmet and gloves Robert abandoned himself up to the feeling of sun on his face, the warm breeze, the sand trickling through his fingers….

“Better pay, Robert,” Jenny reminded him. And there she was – a slender figure in a green summer dress standing a little further up the beach, as fresh and light and lovely as he had imagined her.

“Right-oh.” Robert took off the virtua-gear – and with a wrench he was back in the humdrum surroundings of his bedroom, his phone buzzing. Putting the phone aside, he jabbed keys and got back to the confirmation screen. When all was ready, he clicked, ‘Pay’, only to find that his account had expired.

“Cancel your booking and then renew,” Jenny advised.

Reluctant to abandon the past half hour’s work, Robert tried again, even backtracking a few screens in the hope of circumventing the block. But he got nowhere. There was no help for it; he went back to his booking page and clicked, ‘Cancel’.

An error message can up: ‘Valid account required for cancellation.’

“But how can I have a valid account when my account’s expired?” Robert groaned. His phone vibrated; he groaned again.

“Reboot!” Jenny whispered in his ear.

But Robert was frantically opening a new account under a different ID, and trying to copy and paste the holiday details into that. He got back to the confirmation screen, only to have the order rejected as a duplicate. His phone buzzed angrily; he sent a holding message to Trina and tried again with the new account. The message was rebuffed a dozen times, and his computer hung.

In despair, he rang Trina but found himself blocked, while somehow repeated messages of rejection still came in, accumulating in his phone until eventually that overflowed and hung too.

Defeated, Robert slumped in his chair. He was a complete failure. The room span. He shut his eyes in desolation.

Gentle hands massaged his shoulders. “Come on, big guy!” said Jenny, giving him a little push. Robert raised his head. He felt the warmth of the sun on his back; the rush and hiss of the waves filled his ears. He opened his eyes to bright sunlight, reflected off sea, sand and palm trees. Stooping, he took off his shoes and socks and stood there as the deliciously cool water surged over his feet and then ebbed back.

“Come on!” Jenny shouted. She seized his hand, and with a joyful cry led him scampering after the retreating wave.