The two men standing in the back garden were mirrored exactly by the two cardboard boxes in front of them: one large, one small. The sun was up. The larger man had his arms folded while the smaller man read something from a phone screen that looked much too small for the job. In between instructions, the smaller man sponged his forehead with an old cap which looked to offer little to no actual protection.
For the most part I tried to stay out of sight, which had become my routine whenever work needed doing around the house. Occasionally, the smaller man looked up from what he was doing, but so far I’d managed to evade conversation outside of a quick hello and showing them where the garden was. Previously, Sam had always been the one to talk happily about the weather or the news or field the inevitable questions about how a young couple ended up in a house like this, while I politely attended to imaginary emails somewhere else entirely.
It seemed to be decided that the larger man would lift the machine out of the box, while the smaller provided direction and checked something on the under-side. When the thing emerged cradled in the larger man’s arms, it looked cheaper than I’d thought – shiny reflective plastic in a dark green colour, rather than something chrome and German-looking as I had imagined. It looked, I thought, like a doorstop with two large rear wheels. Like a rehabilitated robot wars competitor.
“How’s here?” the larger man was calling over, holding the machine a few feet above the ground in the top corner of the garden.
“Two minutes,” I replied. Locking and unlocking my phone as if I was in the middle of something.
The smaller man continued when I got closer. “We were thinking here looks pretty flat, and should be easy for him to dock.”
“Looks good,” I said, not fully acknowledging that we were calling the cheese wedge with wheels a him now.
“Or over there,” the smaller man said. “Which is more shaded.”
“Right.” The beads of sweat on the smaller man’s neck were beginning to give way to gravity one by one, creating small dark pools on the neck of his t shirt.
“Up to you really, mate.”
The larger man was still holding the machine. I looked between the two spots which were exactly the same. I had a headache, it was hotter than I’d thought.
“Let’s go here,” the larger man said, whether in kindness or fatigue, I didn’t really care.
“Here’s great,” I said.
The larger man set the machine down. He opened the second box, inside which was a flat, mesh-like object. Something that looked like a picnic blanket of copper and plastic. He lay the mesh down in a spot just bordering the soil near to where we were standing and lifted the machine so it sat on top of it.
Three green lights blinked onto a screen I hadn’t noticed was there.
The smaller man handed me a card.
“Download this,” he said. “Follow the instructions and when you’ve got a minute, do a lap around the borders. That should help it figure everything out.”
“Enjoy,” the larger man said, already packing the cardboard away to leave.
The next morning, I woke up to a message from Sam.
Feeling better? it read, followed by I’m free today but don’t worry if not.
The light was still bright outside. I took two paracetamol which were by the bed from the day before. The day seemed already likely to run away with itself.
I replied, come whenever x
I’m not sure whether the headaches had got worse since we broke up, or whether I’d just started paying attention to them, like mess in a room or a crack in a wall. I went to see the doctor about it, and she gave me a withering look as if to say, I need you to add two and two together here, which all but confirmed the worst of my suspicions.
We hadn’t ended on bad terms. The word amicable had been thrown around in our shared group chats, and while there was no partitioning of friends I suspected there were more conversations being had on her side of things than on mine.
I made some toast which I finished before the kettle boiled. There was only the cheap instant coffee remaining in the cupboard. The espresso machine had been Sam’s and had left with most of the rest of her belongings, minus a final box in the corner of the room.
I stirred the water through as the powder fizzed and settled into bubbles, which reminded me of dark pools of sweat. After a few sips I decided to pour a glass of water instead.
Towards the end, we’d put a brave face on it, but the problems had been there for a while. Only so many conversations can be avoided before sinkholes start to emerge, waiting for someone to fall into the inevitable what are we actually doing here.
It wasn’t the separation that was the worst part, but how easy it was to let go.
My phone pulsed gently on the kitchen table.
Glad you’re feeling better. I’ll come four-ish
See you then x I replied.
Next to each other, something about the two texts looked asymmetrical.
The app demonstrated how the machine knew where to go and where to stop. By walking around the garden holding the phone, you were marking a territory. I thought of next doors cat prowling in the understory of our hedges.
The man on the video took big, military steps, and so I ended up lunging around the garden attempting to recreate his movements exactly, wondering how many machines had slipped the digital net and made a break for it.
By the time the small blue tick appeared on the screen indicating my lunging was over, I was out of breath and had to take a seat in the old armchair we’d positioned at the kitchen window one winter so we could watch what we thought we bats disappearing into the dark.
Sam had always been relaxed about moving in, even in the circumstances that we’d been given the house. A month after finishing university, my Gran had passed away and, to the surprise of almost the entire family, had left me her house, which she owned outright. At first, we were going to sell it, buy an apartment somewhere or maybe even a house of our own away from the suburbs. But Sam suggested maybe we live there for a few months, just while we worked things out.
We were both 21 then. We had only been together for just over a year, and then we’d had three bedrooms with neighbours who had kids and barbeques, outdoor seating and gardens with acers that turned cartoon apple red in autumn. Things that had been planted and cared for and now which could largely look after themselves.
At the time, neither of us could get a full-time job. I had a couple of freelance clients that I did copy-editing work for, which brought in just about enough for us to eat and pay some of the bills.
Sam threw herself into the house, tearing up carpets, wallpaper, tiles, and only worrying about what to do next when the rooms more resembled an inner-city squat. In the evening, she held her phone up in mock-glee every time someone on Twitter hate-posted articles with headlines like, How I became a mortgage homeowner by the age of 27.
“It’s us!” she would shout. “We are the terrible people!”
By the time we’d lived there eight months, Sam had fixed enough of the rooms for the house to feel like something we owned in reality, rather than a place we were just staying in.
Our friends would often visit in the first few months and tell us how lucky we were, and how much they loved the place. But even then, all we tended to see was bills, the damp in the spare room, a roof that could leak at any moment.
It was early Spring and I’d been out that day. Our local council had taken me on for a campaign they were running, which gave me an office to work out of for two or three days a week.
When I got home, Sam was in the garden, pulling at something in the ground. I saw that there were two buckets of weeds next to her, the yellow flowers all crooked and bent at the neck.
“What’s this?” I asked. She continued what she was doing for a little while longer before pausing, out of breath.
“Your gran must have loved this garden,” she said.
“Yeah, I guess,” I replied, laughing, but I don’t know why I was laughing.
She pulled at another handful of weeds, and only the heads came up. The rest remained, all the way down to the roots.
It took me by surprise when the machine finally moved. I saw it inching forwards from the top of the garden and sat up on the chair, like a child readying himself in a cinema.
It turned right, and then left twice, and found myself wishing I had chosen upstairs as a viewing gallery so I could trace the lines it was making in the grass.
A while passed like that. I found watching it had a calming effect on me. It was methodical in a way that I didn’t really understand. When I thought I’d figured out a pattern, or was sure I knew what its next move would be, it did the opposite. Everything seemed arbitrary. Just turns and more turns until it was back where it started.
On one of the rare occasions I’d accepted an invitation for drinks since the break-up, one of our mutual friends had asked what I was going to do with all that space. I gathered she meant the house. A house that now only had me in it.
I hadn’t really thought about it, or considered that I could do something. I told them Sam had always said that it wasn’t so much that I was lazy, but indecisive. That I would be happy sitting on the floor if it meant I didn’t have to choose a chair.
They laughed, but I could see they were a little uneasy. Maybe that I’d brought up Sam unprompted, maybe just in the way people are around others who have lost something.
When I got home that night, I was a little drunk, which is perhaps how I started looking at self-operating lawn mowers. I fell asleep with the phone in my hand and in the morning I bought the cheapest model I could find, which still cost more than my previous two pay-cheques combined.
I watched it move across the garden, emerging out of grass that hadn’t been touched since Sam moved out, and so which now towered above it.
There were other times I was sure it would fall off the grass or ground itself in the soil, only to watch it perform a last-minute turn and continue its path.
Within about an hour of circling back on itself, the garden looked as it had before. A perfect shortness of green.
Sam decided to leave soon after we’d separated, and once that decision was made, the process of actually moving seemed only to last a few hours. Even if I’d had the energy to argue, there would have been no time. Boxes were made to appear, seemingly out of nowhere. Things divided. Rooms were taken out of themselves so that the space that remained was not quite empty or occupied.
Most of her stuff was taken in a day or two, with the last remaining boxes leaving one by one over the course of the following weeks. Neither of us mentioned these repeated trips, it just became another part of our routines. Something not necessarily looked forward to or dreaded. The sun coming up again.
On her last visit to pick up a camera charger, she told me she was staying with Em.
“Is it serious?” I said, in what I thought was a joke at first but which both of us realised wasn’t as soon as I had said it.
“Yes,” she replied.
The machine finished his route and each time he returned to his dock I pressed the button on the app so that he would start again.
Each time, he would set off in a new direction. Gliding over perfect grass, maybe even hoping on some level he would find something he had previously missed.
I brought up the product description on my phone, wanting to know how it worked. Where the decisions were made. Under Operational Guidance all I could find was a single line at the end.
Parameters are set by the user. If the device exits the pre-defined zone, rescuing may be required.
Sam was standing in the middle of the kitchen, wearing the same denim jacket she’d owned since we met and a new pair of trainers that were still a little too white.
“Looks clean,” she said.
“Not really,” I replied. “Just less stuff.”
“How very minimalist.”
The light had left the room, whether it was going dark or had clouded over, I wasn’t sure. I felt tired again. I could feel the pulse in my temples.
“You look well,” I said, pouring myself some water.
Sam was looking through her box of things.
“Thank you,” she said. “Em’s a vegetarian, which means…”
“Ah,” I said, understanding the implication.
“Maybe I should get me some of that…vegetarianism.” I said.
Cells divide. Cells combine. These things happen without us really thinking about it. We both moved about the room, mapping new territory.
“Sara tells me you were out drinking on Friday.”
“Yes,” I said, without really knowing what day it was with any degree of confidence. “Though when you say it like that it sounds like a bad thing.”
“I think it’s a good thing actually,” she said.
“Thanks. Are vegetarians allowed to drink these days?” She laughed at this, which felt normal.
“Only on the weekends,” she replied.
“I think I scared them a little actually. I mentioned you. Think they thought I’d cry or talk about my feelings or something.”
“Talk about your feelings?”
“You can’t be doing things like that. Not unsupervised anyway.”
The room shrank a little then, as rooms tend to do when people aren’t paying attention to them. There was a long pause, which was made worse by the lack of any noise outside. The street had always been quiet. I don’t think Sam had ever liked that. I had never stopped to think about it.
“Have you talked to anyone though?” she said, eventually.
“A little,” I said. “Or not really, I guess.”
“Do you think you need to?”
I read an article once about married couples and correlations. The colour of lovers’ eyes. Sam’s eyes were light brown, almost yellow. I wondered when I first noticed that. When it started to be just one of those things that I knew to be true.
“I don’t think us two talking about it is the best idea, to be honest Sam,” I said. “All things considered.”
“No,” she replied. “You’re probably right.”
She was smiling, which felt kind but also somehow crushing. Like the air was being pulled out of my body. Like my throat was one big air tunnel, filled with nothing but space. I thought about saying that I would like this to go on forever. This quiet, absolute moment.
“That’s new,” she was looking over my shoulder. The machine was cutting neat rectangles in the centre of the garden. “Thought it looked a little bit too neat out there.”
The machine did not move from the centre of the garden. Each time it seemed to have the opportunity to go forwards or change direction, it turned left. Then forwards only a little, then left again.
“I think he’s a little confused.”
“He?” There was either amusement or concern in her voice, I couldn’t tell. “And what’s his name?”
A few weeks after Sam took on the garden as her new project, we discovered we had a resident hedgehog who lived in the undergrowth of one of our hedges.
When it had been a couple of weeks and he hadn’t moved on, Sam started leaving food out for him. At first, small pieces of digestive biscuit, or a handful of leftover crisps. Then later, we looked up what was actually safe – no milk, just water, tinned cat food.
Eventually, more and more of the food would be missing when we checked it in the morning. We bought two small bowls and placed them by the back door. One for the cat food, and one for water.
It was hot that spring. Even the walls sweated. The garden felt humid, and it was already alive with wings and dark shadows by early May.
We established an unofficial rota: filling the water, checking the food, keeping an eye on the nest to see if it remained undiscovered by predators. Not that we knew what might want to hunt a hedgehog.
This routine lasted until around June-time. The Euros were on the television. Football was all that seemed to be talked about on the television. Shops had flags. Cars had flags. The whole street had flags. Faded white and red things that hung lifeless in the lack of breeze.
England had just drawn to some country everyone believed they should be beating. It meant they were out before the knockout stages had really begun. We’d watched the match in a fog of heat, and then we sat in the kitchen drinking the remains of the cheap beer while grown men in neighbouring gardens cried big angry sobs that sounded like car horns.
It was late evening and still light out. Warm enough that our skin stuck against whatever surface we sat on. Each other. We were happy in our silence when we saw him, first smelling the food and then taking a drink out of the bowl.
He stayed there a while drinking with us watching from inside, beers growing thick with warmth in our hands. Eventually, it became too dark to see if he was there or not.
“What shall we call him?” Sam said after a while. Next door’s television was still playing in the background. Post-match punditry, all disappointment, pointless analysis, and best-bits montages.
“David Baddiel,” I said eventually.
She laughed, but quietly. So that the noise wouldn’t scare him away, wherever he was.
I woke up in the armchair looking out over the garden, which was almost entirely black. In the streetlight, I could see a mist of rain had started to fall.
I took a drink out of the can next to me, which had long gone flat. Between that and how dark it had become, I figured I must have been asleep for a while.
I checked my phone and there were two messages from Sam.
Hey the first read. And then Sorry if this is weird. But are you going to stay? In the house? Will you stay there do you think?
I thought about it. I had thought about it. The house. Rooms that weren’t mine, and then were, and then an odd mix of both.
I thought about the days after Sam left. How it felt like the building itself needed translating. I thought about saying that I don’t know how to live here by myself, which I knew was true, even if I didn’t know how to put those words together in the real world.
I got another glass of water and looked into the window where I knew the garden was. I saw, in the centre of the frame, three green eyes approaching.
There were words I wanted to say, questions. Maybe even say them out loud if only just to hear how they sounded in a room.
The green lights edged closer, until they were at the very edge where the grass meets the paving stone. Near to where the bowls used to sit at the back door.
Parameters are set by the user. If the device exits the predetermined zone, rescuing may be required.
I thought, either way a decision was about to be made.
George Aird is a writer based in the North West of England. His previous work has appeared in The North Magazine, The Interpreter’s House, Under the Radar Magazine, Birmingham Literary Journal, Eye Flash Poetry, and Ink, Sweat & Tears, among other publications. In 2019, his poetry was shortlisted for the Maírtin Crawford award.