Jo Walton (papersky) wrote,
Jo Walton

Deep resounding joy

Jim sighed.

If you want to enjoy Christmas, you have to start with a child, a child between four and ten, old enough to understand Christmas and not too old to have stars in their eyes. Of course, that takes you years of hard work if you can manage it the natural way, and as for adoption that takes just as long plus all the form filling. What Jim had -- or, rather, what Mrs Whittaker had, was a robot. It looked like a kid, and of course, it didn't take any hard work. Well, it didn't take Mrs Whittaker any work at all. She just spent ridiculous amounts of money on it and then paid Jim to make sure it worked the way she wanted. Jim had plenty of other work, driving her and keeping all the electronics on the estate running. He didn't need to be reprogramming robots on Christmas Eve.

"Are you done?" Olivia asked.

Jim shook his head. "She wants me to program it to understand about Christmas."

"Dear Lord!" Olivia said, and Jim immediately recognised this as a prayer and not taking the Lord's name in vain. Olivia didn't do that. "How in the world are you going to do that?"

"It's going to take me a little while," Jim admitted. "So far all I've done is given it a lot of public domain stories about Christmas. Luke, Matthew, Dickens, Fitzgerald. And lots of Christmas carols, of course."

"I don't know how you could even start. It's a robot! She puts on you, and you let her get away with it."

"She's not so bad. She's an old lady, and she's not the warmest person, and a lot of the time I think she just doesn't understand how much work things can be."

"There's a difference between the possible and the impossible, and teaching a robot the meaning of Christmas isn't possible."

"I'll do my best anyway."

"That's all we can do. I'm going to bed now. But I'll make popovers for Christmas morning breakfast, and not just for her, for us too. Good night. Merry Christmas."

"Good night, Olivia. That sounds wonderful. I'll look forward to it. Merry Christmas."

Jim stretched, making his back pop and creak. The robot was slaved to Jim's airbook and looked like a sleeping choirboy. How could he make it understand Christmas? And anyway, what did Mrs Whittaker mean by that? Olivia would mean understanding the Incarnation, which was a tall order for anybody, never mind a robot. But Mrs Whittaker didn't go to church much, only for weddings and funerals. He knew, he drove her. Christmas was only partly about Jesus, that wasn't the important part. He was more the excuse than the spirit of the thing. What did she mean -- what did she want the robot to know about? To really enjoy Christmas you need a child -- Jim's children were grown up. Madison was in Atlanta and Joshua was in Singapore. He hoped he'd allowed enough time for the package to get there. He thought back to when they were four and seven, Christmas morning, their wide delighted eyes. What did they understand? He thought back further, to the Christmases of his own childhood.

How could you program wide-eyed wonder? Gift giving he might be able to manage. That was part of it. From the time he'd been old enough it wasn't just the presents he could open, it was seeing other people's joy in the gifts he had given them. But how to program that? He googled quickly. There wasn't an algorithm for it, at least not an easy one. But there were some useful suggestions, and at least it was somewhere to start. He poked around the internet for a while, seeing what had worked and what hadn't, then started inputting. It was after three when he rubbed his eyes and restarted the robot.

Christmas morning, with the popovers, Olivia gave Jim a pair of home-made socks, in an unusual shade of turquoise. He claimed to be delighted with them, and Olivia claimed to be delighted with the potted gardenia he'd bought for her. Mrs Whittaker rang down, and Jim thought she was going to complain about the robot, but she only wanted more coffee. She had a nine foot tree up there, bought ready decorated, and there was a pile of presents underneath it for the robot. He felt sorry for her. She paid him well enough, and a Christmas bonus too. She was getting old. It was sad to have nobody to love but a robot.

As Jim and Olivia were finishing their breakfast, Mrs Whittaker rang down again. "I'm going out," she said.

"I'll bring the car around at once," Jim said.

"No, I'll drive myself," she said. "I should be back in a couple of hours, so could you both be available then?"

"Certainly," Jim said, then put down the phone and turned to Olivia. "She'd going out and driving herself, and wants us available in a couple of hours when she comes back."

"Driving herself?" Olivia said, astonished.

"I don't know where she's going."

"I'm going to church if we have a couple of hours free this morning," Olivia said. "We're doing a lunch for the homeless, and I can help."

After she left, Jim chatted for a while with Madison, and just as he was saying goodbye, Joshua popped up online, so the three of them exchanged Christmas greetings -- and the package had reached Singapore just the day before. Then Jim had a nap, catching up on his short night. He woke up when he heard the car, and went into the kitchen.

"She's back," Olivia said, and just then to their surprise the kitchen door opened. It was the robot, with arms full of bags, followed by Mrs Whittaker, looking flushed and excited, her own arms just as full. Jim had worked for her for six years, and this was the first time she'd ever come into the kitchen.

"Merry Christmas," said the robot.

"Merry Christmas," Jim replied, bemused.

"We've been to Chinatown," Mrs Whittaker said. "It was the only place that was open."

"We've bought you Christmas presents!" the robot said. It was actually bouncing slightly up and down. Out of the bags came gift after gift -- beautiful teapot and cups, tea in many varieties, a silk dressing gown with a dragon on the back, a wok, a rice cooker, silk scarves, red lacquered dragon statues, soapstone buddhas, calendars, back scratchers, jasmine soap, wind chimes, a wonderful and amazing confusion of things. Jim was overwhelmed, and Olivia had to sit down. The robot dashed from one to the other of them. Mrs Whittaker had tears in her eyes.

The last bag contained two huge spit-roast ducks and an astonishing selection of buns and pastries. "So you won't have to cook today," Mrs Whittaker said.

"It should have been a turkey," the robot said severely. "Tiny Tim had a turkey."

"Duck is wonderful," Olivia said. "Thank you."

"Thank you," Jim echoed.

"I should have thought of it before," Mrs Whittaker said, sinking down into a kitchen chair. "It shouldn't take a robot to teach me what Christmas is about."

"They were surprised," the robot said.

"Surprised and delighted," Jim agreed. He looked at Mrs Whittaker sitting there, old and tired but smiling as she so seldom smiled. He hugged the robot, and then, hesitantly, giving her time to shrink away if it wasn't what she wanted, he hugged his employer. "Merry Christmas."

"Let's take this food down to the church and share it with the homeless," Olivia said.

"Oh yes!" said the robot

"I already gave a donation --" Mrs Whittaker began, then shook her head. "Yes. What a wonderful idea."

Maybe you don't always need a child to enjoy Christmas, Jim thought, as he followed the robot out into the snow.

Merry Christmas!
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