To get to the very blank and very ominous page, it took exactly four clicks. First, he’d need to lift the top and press any key. As the screen lit up, he’d have to point the mouse at his name and his profile picture, set to a photo of the front of his house for a reason he decided not to ask his Granddaughter the Giver of the Laptop. Then, he’d have wait a few seconds for everything to order itself, render itself, snap into place from somewhere behind the screen. In the top right corner of the desktop, there was a file entitled Nana. All he had to do was click twice on its icon — a sheet of paper with a folded edge, clearly marking the document’s importance like one would do with a physical copy of a book. Altogether, four clicks, and then in he was, the blank page lighting up his face and the cursor blinking in and out of existence, timing him like a metronome, making him suddenly aware of the passage of time.
To get to the lined page, it took exactly two movements. First, a hug, a universal gesture reserved for those intimate with each other — wrapping his hand around a pen. And then, one other action so specific, familiar and exquisite that it felt like putting a stylus down to play a vinyl record, or swinging an axe to chop wood — bringing the pen down and pressing it to the paper. He was always eager to start building the shapes in which his wife would live. But the letters devolved into uneven, sharp ridges and valleys instead of their pleasant bulges and curves so fast he’d crumple up the paper with a groan of frustration after a few minutes.
‘Why did you bring this here?’ he asked without hesitation when he first saw the laptop. ‘I’ve heard batteries in these things can blow your arms off.’
His granddaughter laughed and it echoed through the sparsely furnished kitchen. All he had was a plain table and two opposing rows of worktops with little on them. He’d got rid of the toaster and the coffee machine, since his wife was the only person who’d used them. No point staring at single-purpose devices all day, ones she will never make buzz with electricity again.
He glowered at his granddaughter with his head bent down so far he could see his bushy eyebrows come into view. It worked — she stopped laughing.
‘Come on, now. You’ve been talking of writing about her for years. Don’t you want to start, before, you know…’
‘What? Before I pop my clogs, too?’
She shook her head. ‘Before you lose the ability to type even that way.’
He sat there in silence and picked at the little dents in the table. Now and again, something would fall on it, and the surface was so soft even a fork could leave a permanent scar. It was at least fifteen years old. His wife had picked it out and he told her the wood was going to be a nightmare, but she just waved him off. A thought lodged itself at the back of his head. It’s almost time to varnish again.
She knew to keep silent now. In times like these, even the lightest noise, even the sound of a curtain being pulled into the open window by the wind could set him off. Her grandmother was the only person who knew how to tame him, it was as if he was a pufferfish and she had a needle which she used to deflate him every single time. For everyone else, he was a mixed bag, and there was only so much one could do to draw the good mood card.
Finally, he grunted and nodded. His granddaughter fished a sheet of paper out of her bag and passed it to him together with a pencil. He snorted. ‘I thought the whole point was to stop me having to write by hand.’
She insisted he learn by himself and that jotting instructions down would aid his memory later. And if he forgot, he could always call her as a last resort.
‘I’ve heard batteries in house phones are very flammable, though,’ she said with a cautious wink.
‘Nobody likes a smart-arse,’ he replied, but she noticed his lips drag upwards ever so slightly as if attached to strings he had no control of.
She explained to him how to turn the thing on and told him what to write down. The thing was easy enough to operate for his purposes. She showed him the profile screen and he was surprised to find the photo of the house appear above his name. He almost asked her why she’d put it there, but then realised he knew better than that. She, too, had her private thoughts and feelings, emotions she wanted to show but not tell, and he could understand that better than anyone. She wasn’t one for tactile displays of affection. Instead, she’d bring an electric, humming beast into his home and load it up with pictures of his house.
The wallpaper was a pleasant image of a koi pond, a painting in neither impressionist nor realist style, but rather something in between, and he asked her about the unusual art. Just something she’d found on the Internet, she replied, and he nodded. She knew he liked fishing — he always ‘went on’ about all the exotic and rare species, as she’d put it. He’d always reply, ‘Well, at least I go on at all,’ and then regret almost immediately as her face dropped, barely out of teenage years, still sulking in that youthful, all-in manner.
She then directed him to the Nana file. ‘It’s a working title,’ she said. ‘I didn’t know what you’d want but I do know what you wanted to write about, so…’
She shrugged and he nodded again, feeling like if he was to speak now, his voice box might flood like an old engine. She taught him how to deal with the file, how to erase whatever he didn’t like, and how to make something appear in bold or italic. These things he wrote down slowly and as legibly as his hands would let him. “Hands” was perhaps a word too human to describe what he thought of as two broken arm attachments. Some of the joints were at least twice their normal size and his fingers were all slowly curving away from the thumbs, as if to ostracise them. His nails were deformed, almost broken in half by a tall ridge running down the middle, which made them look like very pointy hills. His granddaughter often said his hands were very pretty to look at, but he always barked back. Suffering is never pretty, he’d say. You should know that by now.
His wife’s illness and death stormed through the family like a quiet natural disaster. They were the bustling buildings, she was the tsunami wave. She stayed home until the very end. He took care of her with his own two claws, even if sometimes, he’d have to bend the fingers on his one hand with those of the other to pick things up. Disobedient crooked things. She’d call him names, then she’d call out for him, and whenever he entered the room, she’d call out for him again and yell about some old fart always barging in. She’d forget how old they both were, and she’d ask for her easels and brushes and watercolours. She hadn’t painted in years, but still, he’d bring the props. Her art was nonsensical and scary, and almost always a diarrhoea-brown hue, and she’d cry and ask him whether she was an abstractionist. Very often, he’d have to leave the room without replying. He didn’t want to break down in front of her, he didn’t want her to see the smoke and hear the gargling sound he made. So he’d give her the cold shoulder, the door clicking shut behind him, and wallow as far from her as he could. Still, she’d hear it sometimes, and complain about ghosts of lonely men roaming the house.
Before Alzheimer’s, she kept up-to-date with technology much better than him, which surprised him as he always imagined the creative types staying behind, guarding tradition, renouncing progress. She laughed at him for it, holding her sides as was her custom, as if she was scared they’d split. ‘You don’t know me at all,’ she’d say. ‘That’s good. Got to keep some mystery between us.’
She often joked she only had a phone capable of receiving text messages in order to keep track of the praises she was given. And people did contact her. Some of her art students would marvel at finding her paintings in galleries, some interested parties would inquire about prices of the few originals she still had left, some would ping to confirm a date and venue of a talk she promised to deliver. Sometimes, she’d show him the messages, blush and bring up her hands to her face in disbelief.
So perhaps she would have liked it, he tried to tell himself, she would have liked it for him to stare at the blinking vertical line in the empty document, winking with sarcasm, daring him to push it forward and forward with his writing.
‘Why does it need to blink like this?’ he asked his granddaughter. She didn’t really know. She looked at it for a while, and then said, ‘I think it’s so you find it easy to see where you’ll be writing next. Because nothing else moves on the screen.’
‘Why aren’t the keys in alphabetical order?’
She shrugged and smiled. ‘Funny the questions you come up with if you don’t just take it for granted.’
She looked it up on her phone. ‘The layout was initially designed for typewriters to make it more difficult to type because the old ones would jam easily if you hit the keys too fast.’
He snorted again, this time in triumph. He’d proven his point — those machines were purposely made to be hard to use. She shrugged again and looked out of the window with a frown. She didn’t appreciate this. She knew she’d be in for a treat this time, but for the love of god.
‘You’re like the keyboard, too. You’ve been made to be hard to deal with.’
She expected an aggressive retort, but he kept quiet, and eventually, she started feeling the weight of an impending apology bear down on her, like the air just got thicker. She didn’t know which one of them would have to say it, or rather, say it first.
‘I’m off,’ she said and gathered her bag. ‘If you decide to use it, you’ve got everything you need on the paper. If not…’ she shrugged one last time, approached him quickly and planted a kiss on the top of his head, right in the middle of the bald spot.
And just like that, she was gone. He watched her walk out into the driveway without looking back and turn left onto the street. She really was gone and the silent beast was ready to hum.
For around a week, he would sit down and lift the screen flap off the base. The screen was black and he often reflected in the surface. He imagined the man on the screen was trapped inside because he gave up his thoughts to the machine and it ate him whole like Little Red Riding Hood.
His granddaughter didn’t call and he knew she wouldn’t. She was proud. She was a descendant of a proud woman, one who raised her children to be proud and who then went on to pass the vice onto their children. When Nana got ill, nobody talked about it, heads kept ramrod straight. He bet their houses were all suddenly invaded by wallowing ghosts just like his own. Their eyes sunk deeper into their skulls and their hands sought shelter in their pockets more and more often, but still, nobody talked. There was no pride in suffering.
He’d tried to write about her a hundred times since her death. Every time, his hand would give in, his fingers would stiffen so much he always thought they’d never straighten out again, and the pain would scream at him that his hand was about to fall off at the wrist. He wasn’t even sure what he wanted to write. He just knew that all she left behind was the paintings, too final, and her children, too fickle. Her nature lay somewhere between those two, and he wanted to produce something that would reflect it. He didn’t know whether he was going to write a biography, a novel, a series of poems. He wasn’t a writer, so there was every chance he’d miss at every shot. But his fingers wouldn’t grant him any proper shots anyway, unable to bend enough to pull the trigger.
On the ninth day, he opened the lid and pressed a key, G, right in the middle. He went through the process mostly staring down at the keyboard and the cheat sheet and before he knew it, the empty document shone its cold, white light at him. He swallowed and directed his eyes back down at the black keys.
It took what felt like forever to put together a sentence. One day, we woke up and the world was a little darker. One day, they woke up and the world was a little darker, and it took him two minutes to say that to the screen. He pushed himself away from the table and left, the chair’s leg squeaking against the linoleum floor.
He spent the rest of the day away from the kitchen, but a thought gnawed at him, or more the sensation of his fingers pressing on the keys which knelt in front of him with ease, their joints clearly well oiled and designed to spring back up immediately. It was also a lack of sensation that haunted him. There was no pain, or nowhere near what he would have felt after two minutes of writing by hand. And he knew — he wasn’t an idiot — that his hands would eventually find their way around.
When he came back to the kitchen, his letters still floated on top of the otherwise blank page. The beast wouldn’t go to sleep unless he lulled it, that’s what his granddaughter said and explained to him where to click to do just that.
One day, we woke up and the world was a little darker. The sentence appeared to him as if dripping in sweat, and he thought he could never write at that speed. The thoughts of his wife were like flashes of lightning in the middle of the night, brilliant and scary. Like electric branches, they split in so many places he couldn’t follow them all. And they only lit up his imagination for a fraction of a second. No, this wouldn’t do, this searching for every letter. He’d need speed in his fingers to keep up with his mind.
He picked up the house phone and speed-dialed his granddaughter — a function set up by his wife. She answered after a few rings, during which he managed to grow impatient.
‘I need another one of those papers with the folded edge on my screen,’ he told her.
‘Like the one that says Nana, I want another one of those.’
She fell silent for a second, employing the internal translator in her, the one which made it possible to explain to him how computers worked in the first place.
‘You mean a text document?’
‘Yes, one of those.’
She suspected he’d misunderstood something. She suspected he’d deleted the previous one, or somehow lost the damned cursor and thought the only way to get it back was to create a new file. Or perhaps he didn’t like where the previous document appeared on the desktop. She sighed.
‘Why do you need another one?’
‘Why are you asking? You writing a novel as well?’
She gave him a few heartbeats.
‘You ever seen Nana paint over one of her bad ones?’
No, she didn’t. She’d keep them in the attic and go to study them sometimes. How that had anything to do with anything at all, she didn’t know, but she was a little tired of the sarcasm.
She shrugged and explained to him what to do.
At dinner, she almost told her roommate about the conversation. She thought it was funny — another old-person-versus-technology anecdote. But she bit her tongue and it almost hurt, because as she opened her mouth, suddenly she understood, and the sound which had managed to escape her was some distorted, cut vowel, a practice run for a real word. She excused herself and went right for the bathroom. She hunched over the sink, her paled knuckles holding onto the edges of the basin. No, Nana never painted over her bad ones, and neither would he. But they kept trying. She imagined his twisted fingers tapping slowly at the keyboard, putting simple, elementary sentences together in his file. It’s a nice day today. I will varnish the table later. The tears slowly meandered down the porcelain slopes.