The day we met, he said that he felt like he’d known me for years.
It’s a trite sentiment, of course. Everyone says that when they meet someone they fancy the pants off, don’t they? But in our case, it was a little more apt than usual.
He didn’t know, when I wandered up beside him on Brighton Pier that sunny May Bank Holiday day, that I’d been keeping careful tabs on him for months and waiting for my moment to strike. That sounds creepy, doesn’t it? But it wasn’t like that.
‘I’m Beatrice, but most people call me Bea,’ was my opening gambit. I said it without looking at him, just licked my ice cream and looked out at the ocean. We all have Shakespearean names – it’s my Developer’s little joke. I think he likes to think of himself as a playwright, creating stories for us all to play out. I think maybe I’ll be Helena for a while next time, if there is a next time. But I digress.
He told me his name was Jonathan. ‘Not Jon. Not ever.’ I did not, of course, tell him that I already knew that. I didn’t flirt, but I definitely led the conversation. I don’t think he really wanted to talk to me, if his shrugs and monosyllabic answers were anything to go by. Some men just don’t know what’s good for them, do they? But he didn’t tell me to clear off or worse, so I stayed.
I asked him where he was from, if he lived locally. It had been a long time since I’d last done this, but I still remembered all the lines.
‘No. I’m down from London for the weekend.’ 104B Valley Road, SW11. One and a half beds. Bought in the mid ‘nineties before the property market exploded. ‘My wife died a year ago,’ he added. ‘Being at home reminds me too much of her, so I like to get away as often as I can.’ It was the longest sentence he’d said so far. I chose to take that as a green light.
I dared to place a hand on his tanned forearm. ‘I’m sorry.’
He flinched like he had been burned by my touch but, amazingly, did not push me away. ‘Thank you.’
We spoke a while longer until, licking the last remnants of Mr Whippy ice-cream from my fingers, I asked him to join me for an early dinner. If he says no, I thought, you’ve blown it. My entire mission was contingent upon this conversation. I did not have a back-up plan.
‘Okay,’ he said. ‘But you need to know I’m not ready for… for anything.’
That’s okay, I said to myself. That part can wait.
‘Of course not,’ I said out loud.
We found a seafood restaurant. Nothing fancy; chequered red and white tablecloths, food served on blue plates with little pictures of fish around the edges. Jonathan never liked posh places.
We talked about ourselves. Well, he did, blissfully unaware that I already knew everything there was to know. I lied seamlessly, elaborately, weaving him tales of growing up in a small Northumberland village with a single mother and three brothers, of going to study in Cambridge, of a failed career in journalism and the breakdown of a marriage following an affair (his) and a nearly-fatal overdose (mine). I knew intellectually, of course, that these memories weren’t mine. But the stories were so well programmed into my brain that I could almost hear the Sunday church bells, almost smell the whisky on my imaginary former husband’s breath. They intermingled with the real memories, the ones I knew I could never tell him I had.
I did not prompt him to talk about his loss. He had to get there by himself.
‘Do you want to get a drink?’ he asked, after we’d paid the bill and wandered back out onto the seafront in the fading light. ‘My hotel isn’t far from here.’
‘Okay,’ I said.
At the hotel bar, I ordered a vodka and diet Coke. I watched the expression flit across his face and wondered if he would say, ‘That was always her drink.’ He didn’t. That first drink was followed by a second, and then a third. By the time the barman rung his bell for last orders, Jonathan was definitely tipsy. Not me – I’d switched to plain Coke after that first one. Needed to keep my wits about me.
‘Olivia never got sick. I don’t think she even had a cold the first fifteen years I knew her!’ he said. I sipped my drink and waited. This was going better than expected – I’d thought it would take weeks for him to talk about his dead wife at all. Then again, I am good at gaining men’s trust. You could say I was made for it.
‘Then suddenly,’ he continued, ‘one day she found a lump on her breast. The next week, she was having it biopsied. That was December. By May, she was dead.’
‘How tragic,’ I said, as if I did not remember the whole sorry saga all too well.
It had been a shame, of course. The Company tried their best, but inevitably one of their perfect specimens would malfunction. They’d more or less ironed out the cancer gene in the last few rounds of hosts, as far as I could understand.
‘I don’t usually talk like this,’ Jonathan said, draining his glass. ‘I don’t usually talk to people much at all, if I can avoid it. But you’re different. I feel like I’ve known you for years.’ I gave a small nod and said nothing.
I did not go back to Jonathan’s hotel room that night. I wanted to, of course. Oh, how I wanted to feel those lips on mine. But I knew perfectly well that he would become scared and run from me if I pushed things too fast too soon. So I gave him a chaste kiss on the cheek, told him it had been nice meeting him, and left him with my telephone number.
It’s been years since that day. After we moved in together, he told me something. ‘I was considering suicide that weekend when I met you,’ he said. ‘You reminded me that there was still joy left in this world even without her in it.’
I wish I could tell him the truth, of course. Sometimes I ache with the longing to share it with him. But that was never part of the plan.
If Jonathan finds out, my Developer will know, and he will have to report a breach of our strict secrecy code. Then I will be shut down – my consciousness and my personhood switched off with a flick of a switch. No-one ever told us what would happen to the host bodies if they had to switch one of us off. I’m not sure I want to know.
I already knew what I was going to do when my last body started to fail.
‘It’s not done,’ my Developer said when I presented my plan. ‘It’s against protocol.’
‘No-one will know.’
‘They will if you give yourself away. And then what would happen? This whole operation could be blown wide open. No, it’s too dangerous.’
I got my way by threatening to blow my cover, and the Company’s cover, just before my sick body failed me. A last act of revenge. His hands tied, he gave me what I wanted, exactly to my specifications.
‘Young-ish. Say thirty or so. And attractive – the kind of woman a man can’t resist,’ I instructed. ‘Dark hair. Nice eyes. I’ve got to be just enough his type, but not too similar.’
The day my body died, my Developer re-uploaded me with my new name and my newly installed memories alongside the old ones – both the real experiences I’d had from the day he first uploaded me and sent me out into the world, and the ones that were factory-installed to give me a convincing background.
I looked at my beautiful new body in the mirror and wondered how long I would have to bide my time before I could make my move. I didn’t feel guilty then, but I do now.
But it’s okay, I remind myself again today when I wake up and look over at the sleeping man beside me. He believes he has found love again. And in a way, he has. I tell myself every day that the mission was one of selflessness: show Jonathan that he can still love, that his life is worth living even without Olivia. But I know that’s self-aggrandising nonsense. In reality, I was angry – the Company had promised me fifty years and I’d barely had twenty – and I’d just wanted my life back. My life, and my health, and my husband.
The wedding photograph from all those years ago still hangs in pride of place on the wall.
‘I’m not taking it down,’ he’d told me the first time I visited.
Oh, my love, why would I ever want you to?
He told me early on that he wouldn’t marry me. He says that, even though he loves me and wants to spend his life with me, actually marrying me would still feel like disloyalty to her memory. That’s okay. He doesn’t need to know that I remember our wedding so vividly that I can still smell the flowers and feel the soft flakes of confetti falling on my hair.