The Mile by Simon Renaka

Norman purchases a mute companion that only wants to please him.

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I was chosen. He knew I was better than the others. The best. I had been on display for weeks now, ever since I was first brought onto the main floor of The Mile, and could already sense when a man's relentless gaze led to one of us getting a ticket out of here. It wasn't a firsthand experience, but I suppose you learn by observing. And this time, his gaze, his thoughts and desires were fixed on me.

Of course, he pretended to be undecided, strutting through the aisles while all of us stood motionless, silently hoping for our bodies not to betray us and vaporise the potential we thought we exuded. None of us was without flaws, yet each of us hid them as best as we could.

'How about this one?' the shopkeeper enquired softly. 'A pair like this ought to attract attention easily. I know they seem quite large, but they blend quite well, too - with the right attires, that is. Yet we price it quite reasonably. And touch here,' she was guiding the man's hand on the frontal ridges of one of the Lockwells. We were all named after our original owners. Our makers. 'See? All natural. These days it's hard to tell whether they are natural or not just by sight. You need to touch.'

He ran his fingers over its skin, barely touching the surface as though conjuring gooseflesh under his fingertips, and after a few slight pinches recoiled. 'Yes. I can feel that. Natural indeed.' His voice was respectful, but it hardly concealed his disinterest. He started walking down the aisle behind me. I could hear his reserved footfalls getting closer. I am here. Here. Here. The same few words looped in my mind. My breathing faltered.

'How about an Endell?' the shopkeeper said, pointing her hand away from me. Don't stop now, I'm right here, my thoughts continued to echo in the empty chambers of my soul. 'They always bring nothing but satisfaction. Quite soft, too.' Her palm was small and facing the man, with the fingers stretched and locked together. The other hand was firmly attached to her lower back. Her wrinkled face didn't let any emotions bubble up to the surface. I was glad she wasn't on display with the rest of us; it would be a pity seeing her being hauled off for recycling because of her lack of appeal to the customers. I hated her, for stopping him this time, for pushing others like him away from me in the past, and I didn't want to burden myself with pity for those whom I hate.

'Ah, well, that's a no, I've had one of these. Wasn't impressed. They don't last long,' he said. She nodded and quickly withdrew the hand. 'I saw something I quite liked over - where was it? - yes, I believe it's there,' he turned on his heel and, walking in a semicircular line so as to get around the divider wall between our two aisles, approached the platform on which I stood.

For a brief second I thought I was dead, inanimate; the beats in my chest stopped. What now? The world in front of me froze. I saw the shopkeeper emerge from behind the wall, too, but I couldn't turn myself away from him. His calm demeanour unnerved me. Is he still pretending? Has he set his mind on someone else? I couldn't tell how much longer I could stand there and not explode.

He cocked his head to the right. Then, as he was bringing his hand with a single extended finger to his lower lip as if attempting to shush my mind, he said, 'What about this one? Is it new?'

New? My astonishment was turning into irritation. I was born and brought to this deplorable place just for you. You. Trust me. Just take me. Sadly, he couldn't read minds. Even if he could, my thoughts wouldn't have helped. He didn't look like the type of man who liked overzealous advances. Not from the likes of me. Good-looking, refined to the highest possible degree, and meek - the qualities that sold best here. Sometimes I had to remind myself that.

'This Bianchi here? Yes, not second-hand, I assure you. Brand new. We've had a delivery recently - but that's the only colour we've got now,' the shopkeeper replied. 'A tad more expensive than the previous one we saw back there.' She was waving her right hand with a thumb pointed backwards. 'Nonetheless, it would suit you well. Though this one's a display model. New, but it still has spent some time on display. If you want one that's seen less light, I could bring you another one from the back.'

This witch, I thought. A hag is what she is. If only the roles were reversed, I can dream, yes, but if only that were the case. I wouldn't send her for recycling. No - giving her another life? No. She doesn't deserve that. That's the long way to hell. I would simply -

'No -'

- grind her slowly to smithereens - what?

'- no need. I like this one,' he said. He caressed the left side of my chest. His eyebrows lifted slightly; the corners of his lips twitched. Perhaps my mind was playing tricks on me, but I thought I saw him smile. Just a little bit. He extended his arm and led me down the platform, then turned to the shopkeeper and said, 'I would like to have a go with it before I decide.'

'Naturally, sir. We've got space for that. Please, follow me.'

Can't be. Is this it? I thought. Was I right? Am I getting out? Guided by the shopkeeper, he took me to a dimly lit room. I'd never been to this part of the building before despite having seen others of my kind being taken here by their potential new owners. Most often, the men would re-emerge happy, as though the promise The Mile had on its windows ('Quality and Pleasure for a Reasonable Price') was starting to be fulfilled. Their chosen companions, however, especially those with little experience, would have a peculiar look. Still mute, still holding themselves together, still trying to look appealing. A normal eye would detect nothing, no changes, especially on the surface, but I knew. It was a language I could read: they were hurting, more so than on the sales floor.

'Shall I draw the curtain? I know some men like to conduct their business and muse about their choices in private,' the shopkeeper said.

The man turned. 'Yes - not the whole way though. To let some light in. I'd like to see what I'm doing.' He smiled.

It was awkward at first: I didn't know how to behave, what to think or expect. With a gentle push, he made me face the wall. Why doesn't he want me looking at him? I heard the sleeves of his jacket rustle; he placed it neatly folded in half on the burgundy armchair behind him. Then his tie: he battled that garment like a snake strangling him with all its slithery might. Finally, he unbuttoned the top two nacre buttons of his shirt. 'Wouldn't be that awful having air conditioning here, would it?' His mumbles barely caught my ear.

I kept my eyes closed. Just a bit longer. You're almost out. He approached me in two languid steps, gripped the right side of my neck firmly and pulled himself closer. I could hear him breathing heavily through the nose. Is this a test? A final test?

The pain was sudden. It stung like a bee, a handful of bees, many, many agitated bees defending themselves against an unrelenting attacker. It dawned on me - I'd never seen a real bee, only in pictures, never been stung by one either. How would I know what it feels like to be stung by it? But they have needles attached to their bodies - stingers - and I was no stranger to needles. I hated needles. They would never leave a pleasant feeling after coming into contact with your body. That wasn't the image I needed now. Too painful. I had pain in buckets as it was. Bees are much nicer. Adorable little creatures with fluffy pill-shaped bodies, and those small translucent wings. They have all the freedom of the sky. Ah, the envy!

I could see the shape our two bodies were forming in the wall mirror to our side. It was something taken from a dream, something you'd like to understand better only to put your mind at ease. By the edge of the reflection, surrounded by light seeping in from the sales floor, hung the expressionless face of the shopkeeper. It pierced me with its icy stare. My vision became cloudy; tears were paving a path down my cheek. As though woken from a stupor, the shopkeeper started moving again. 'Everything good?' she said.

'Yes - almost done.' His voice was weary. 'Eh, let me just...' He left the sentence unfinished. His body started jerking with different energy, shedding its usual rhythm. At times, I felt like the floor was slipping from under me, yet my struggle to maintain balance went unnoticed. The intensity with which he was moving grew steadily. And then, when I thought I couldn't hold it in me any longer, that I might break down, it started to abate. He seemed to have reached the pinnacle of his labour. Before long, he ceased moving entirely. Why did he stop? Overcome by dread, I forgot about the pain. Did I do something wrong?

Hopeless, I glanced at the mirror again. He was looking at me, tracing something on my skin with his finger, feeling around every crinkle, lightly scratching them to see how I would react. It tickled, which lifted my spirits somewhat. I couldn't tell if he managed to detect how I felt or if I gave that away, but the seriousness was beginning to dissipate from his face. He turned his head towards the mirror and locked his eyes on me. He smiled. Not because of me - though I didn't doubt I had something to do with this - but for me. As if saying, 'I see you. I want more of you.' I couldn't smile back: I felt numb. But in that moment, numbness aside, I could feel warmth slowly oozing out of me. I knew he could feel it as well. I want more of you, too.

The picture in the mirror was finally clear: the shapes of our bodies, every bulge and depression fit each other like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. It was a moment filled with serenity; both of us admired each other, letting the image of our future together play through in our minds.

I was complete.

'Happy with your choice, sir? It complements you nicely,' the shopkeeper said leaning on the wall by the gap of the curtain. I was too exhausted even to attempt to think about her. She was a lifeless object to me - an item of furniture, just a background detail meant to fill an empty space in the portrait of us. The only sound I was interested in was the soft 'yes' that left the man's lips soon after.

As anyone else who departed from The Mile, I was given one final wash by the nimble hands of the shopkeeper. The sponge she was wielding barely wetted my skin, as though this process was meant merely to reassure the man that what he was purchasing had been cared for extensively, ripened just for him like a fruit on the highest branch under the sun. Then followed a few sprays of perfume (of his choice, naturally), the bottle of which he was given as a gift. Finally, after the baptism full of tantalising scents, the ablution from my sin of being ownerless for so long was done. Promptly, she wrapped me in a few layers of dark muslin that scarcely concealed what was underneath them and, turning to the man, said, 'All right. It's ready and it is exclusively yours.' She grinned. The 'thank you' the man gave in response was washed away by the clatter of coins falling through the well of the shopkeeper's loosened fist into an open till. 'Have a lovely evening!' she said.

The drive to his home - our home, I could finally say that - wasn't long, nor bumpy. Something made me feel it wouldn't be a shabby place, perhaps not a palace, but the royal pampering I had just received bolstered my expectations regardless. The tinted windows at the back of the car and the darkening evening sky presented me with mere fragments of the outside world: human-like silhouettes; tall, imposing buildings; and cars covering patches of road in front of them with light. Time and again, he would raise his eyes to the rearview mirror and, upon seeing me, smile. 'We're almost there,' he would whisper.

The suburbs, which we entered soon after leaving the busy streets of the city centre, reminded me of The Mile: it was always filled with objects looking oddly similar and forming a barely noticeable bubble of monotony. Once we stopped in the drive before what I thought was the man's home, I tried to savour everything my eyes could catch: it was a two-storey house which looked rather modern, like most houses in the vicinity; a handful of decorative trees were planted on the otherwise empty front lawn. Everything looked minimalist and thoroughly maintained but still rather neutral, leaving enough space for their owner to shine and be the centre of attention. Compared to the place I had been spending my time at up until now, this was a palace.

Uncertainty chased me like a shadow for the first few days at my new home. The man was always gentle, always understanding: he made sure I wasn't in constant pain, that comfort and safety was all I felt. And I did feel safe, and everything I needed to feel comfortable was there, apart from my resolve to do what I was meant to do: to serve and please him. Life at The Mile prepared you to be looked at and, naturally, to look back with the same amount of reverence. To make others feel good just by allowing them to be close to you. But I couldn't tell how much real pleasure he could get from that. I didn't want to see myself as a mere tool he would have to use himself. Not anymore at least. I needed to contribute to his comfort and pleasure, too.

Most mornings, when I was still adapting to the new environment and role I was expected to assume, before leaving for work, he would bring an old-looking Backwood model from a modestly-sized room that looked more like a walk-in wardrobe than a room anyone could live in happily. I wasn't used to spacious rooms nor the comforts I was provided here, but even to me, it looked like a place for punishment. Is this where they keep those meant for recycling? At The Mile it was something that just happened, no prolonged torture; one moment you'd be hoping for the bell over the door to ring, the next you'd be gone. Despite the suspicions floating around, no one would know exactly how or where: the shopkeeper was quick and discreet when it came to that.

The Backwood he would so carelessly grope and push around was my predecessor. I was there to replace it. We looked almost alike, only I wasn't adorned with unhealing cuts; my skin was glowing, unspoiled by bruises and creases. I was young and promising and it was old and decrepit. I couldn't understand how it could let itself turn into that. After all he has done for you. How could you? Our likeness filled me with disgust. I would never let myself look like that. Will the repulsion he feels for you one day be directed at me? All because of you? I was almost glad it suffered in that dark room. I wished it would get recycled already so that someone better could take its place. The man deserved better. And I was better. I could make him feel better.

I observed their mornings with curiosity. In spite of its state, the Backwood appeared detached from its body. Like a callused foot pressed against hot coals, it didn't feel a thing. That helped whenever the man mounted it with no regard for its feelings. His touch was rough - he wasn't dealing with an unbroken horse like me; he didn't need to be wary of any movements it could make, involuntary or otherwise. There were no expressions of pain either, almost no sound except for his own shuffling around. The whole process was rather quick, too, as though he knew exactly what he wanted and how to get it in the quickest way possible. And my predecessor knew exactly how to give it to him.

Usually, when he was done, his head would lift, with the eyes pointed straight at me. He wasn't hindered by any discomfort, rather, he looked at ease knowing I was watching him. 'Don't worry. And don't feel sorry,' the soft expressions on his face would convey, 'that's what a man and someone like you are meant to do. It's natural. It's accepted. And it can be beautiful.'

It can be beautiful. Yes. Why wouldn't that be beautiful? It became my mantra after the man led me out of my room one early morning instead of going into the walk-in wardrobe to fetch the Backwood. Finally recycled, I thought. I couldn't even hear when that happened; I found comfort in the thought that perhaps it didn't resist, just accepted its fate and allowed itself to be taken away. It's better for everyone this way.

His touch was tender but not as restrained as the first time. When our bodies reconnected, neither bees nor needles forced themselves into my mind. It's natural. It hurts, but I will hold on. I will suffer through it for you, just for you. But the pain wasn't as intense anymore; the anticipation and experience dulled its effect. Shock must have been the strop that sharpened the knife that was driven into me last time.

Between breaths, thoughts about him started creeping into my mind. Do you suffer, too? Do you feel any pain? My pain? I knew I sounded absurd: necessity, and possibly pleasure was his aim, and pain had no role in this. And he must have done it so many times it had become instinctual - perhaps it had always been so. His body made the motions, like when he was eating or sleeping, and all he had to do was relinquish control.

Getting used to pain meant getting used to the outside world. I didn't see much of it though, at least not the lush and lively parts that are worth every bit of your soul, only his office. Even if I could overlook the grey-brown space of bleakness with an occasional flower tuft whose realness was dubious at best, the drastic changes in his attitude made me hate that place. He would become too accommodating to his associates and their whimsical ideas at the expense of his standards and, at times, dignity. But that was a force he couldn't fight against: everyone there was focused only on their own image and status.

'Well, would you look at this,' a voice behind us said as soon as we entered the office together for the first time. Firm regular footfalls approached us carrying the owner of the voice. 'Norman? Decided to upgrade? Finally.'

Norman? Who's Norman? I couldn't believe what I was hearing. I looked at the man, my man, and couldn't comprehend why I'd never sought out his name. Maybe having a name was still an unusual concept to me: glueing your essence to a name meant glueing yourself to the world in which that name is used, and no one, especially I, could tell how long I had before I would be taken away from it, recycled into someone else. And what would happen then? Would my name serve the same purpose for someone else? Or would there be a plurality of someone elses, built and moulded out of me, all bearing my name? If I have to risk losing the only thing making me at least somewhat unique, I thought, I'd rather not have it at all. They won't take away what I don't have.

'Morning to you, too, Edward,' the man - Norman - said. His name still seemed foreign to me, still lacked the usual sweetness which permeated my thoughts of him. He glanced at me and continued, 'I suppose so, I felt like I was ready for something different.'

The stranger was looking directly at us, at Norman, and grinning with his arms open as though ready to embrace him. 'Did my speech last week work? It worked wonders, didn't it? Messed with your mind a bit?' He squeezed Norman's shoulders and then released them, repeating the same motions until Norman's face started showing signs of discomfort. 'You didn't feel too sorry, did you? You shouldn't feel sorry,' he said, trying to even out the rumpled pieces of fabric covering Norman's shoulder pads. 'I said it made you look bad and it did. Wasn't lying. That thing reeked of pain. You did it a favour. I'd want someone to put me down, too, if I were suffering like that. No doubt everyone would.' He sighed and then shaped his mouth into a grotesque smile. 'Figuratively speaking, of course. We both know it's not a person.'

The two of them stood silent, neither knowing how to keep the conversation flowing. Their eyes scurried around the room, at times landing on me and forcing their owners to squeeze their lips together and nod. 'So', Edward broke the silence, 'how did you spend your final evening together? Did you take it for one last spin?' he said with a smirk.

'Yes, I suppose you could say that.' Norman gave a restrained smile in response.

'Bet you did, bet you did. Anyway,' Edward said, stretching the ending of the word for longer than was comfortable, 'look, there's this thing, eh, myself and a couple of fellers from sales are organising a few games of tennis this weekend. Doubles, you see. Need a player to make it even. And my first thought - Norman, you, my dearest; you're good with a racquet, no? I think you are.' No answer escaped Norman's lips. 'No matter, no matter: what if this were more fun. I was thinking: mixed doubles. You know Clare and Yvonne, I'm this close to selling this idea to them,' he said, measuring air with his thumb and index finger, 'Tess might tag along - not a reason to be chuffed, I know, but it doesn't hurt either, as long as the other two are there. You know what I mean, don't ya?' He scratched the tip of his nose from time to time as if trying to pacify that uncontrollable smirk twisting his face. 'They'll be a sight for sore eyes, ah in those outfits, do you know what I mean? Of course you do. And trust me, these eyes,' he tapped himself on the chest, 'are really sore. You will -'

Their talk meshed with the humming of the vacuum cleaners and printers. Soon, another man approached these two, and then another. They laughed, they waved their hands, they kept the conversation going with topics that never went anywhere beyond the same meaningless comments about me, my predecessor, the past and upcoming tennis get-togethers, and the women trying to pass them in silence. I was baffled at first: the stream of shallow flattery that poured from their mouths was the opposite of what I'd learnt to expect from them. Speech always seemed to be a way to extend your refined presence beyond your body, to educate minds and calm spirits. A privilege I couldn't enjoy. To them, it wasn't a form of communication. Their aim wasn't to be understood, they only yearned to attract attention. Doubtless, it was because they wouldn't be interested in attempting to understand the others either. But if only they saved a handful of their words for me. Or a couple. Or just one. One word would be enough, yes. One word to let myself be understood and share some real value with the world.

I wonder, do words have flavours? I bet they do. Which word would I try first?

All of these men had a companion of their own. They were vaguely similar to me in both shape and colour, with obscure ornaments decorating their skin here and there. Quite confident yet completely mute. They were all in their prime, here to serve and elevate their owner's image. Whenever I glimpsed at them, they would avert their eyes as though pretending I wasn't worth their attention. Is it because I'm new here? I thought. But whenever I turned away, I would feel their eyes surreptitiously focusing on me, scrutinising my looks and trying to penetrate the surface of my body. After waiting for my moment for a few brief seconds, I turned my eyes back on one of them, leaving it no time to look away. The first expression I was met with was fueled by indignation, though the longer we gazed at each other, the more its disdain-ridden face evened out, letting the patterns of dark brown dots on its nose be seen clearly. At one point, I could even sense curiosity emanating from it. What are you thinking about?

A sudden chortle from one of the men forced me to look away. 'No way!' he said. 'You're meaning to tell me they just went along with that? Twenty per cent above asking? You must be joking.'

'Not gonna lie, I wish I were,' the other man said. 'Sometimes it's too easy, and I like a good challenge. But you can't blame a guy for capitalising on the gullible now and then. And you know me,' he shrugged, palms facing up, 'I'm a trustworthy guy.'

'Ha, no doubt. Must've worked a lot on that façade,' the first one replied, grinning.

Like a person expecting to enter the same dream they'd previously woken up from, I refocused my gaze on the only other soul that showed any kind of interest in me, the real me. I noticed the subtly hidden scars on its face, the impressions on its skin that one could only see from a certain angle. I wondered whether my judgement was correct, whether these companions were really in their prime. Amidst my confusion, I counted the dots on its nose, then the larger circles they formed, waiting for it to look back at me. When it did, it forced its eyes away again, then down below me. When they finally ceased darting around and landed on me, I could almost sense concern. What are you trying to tell me? Soon after, with another set of footfalls growing in sound and intensity, it looked away.

'Gentlemen,' a womanly voice said. Its soothing tone electrified the group; one by one the men turned to face the owner of the voice. With eager swiftness, I followed their suit.

'Yvonne, a surprise to be sure. Hope the morning's been pleasant,' Edward said. He pushed his hands deep into his trouser pockets and puffed his chest out, straining the top jacket button.

'Yes, so far it has,' she said, smiling demurely. Her hands were clasped in front, just below the waistline where the long olive tartan skirt met the white tight-fitting sweater. With a slight turn, she gave me a glance, then looked at Norman, letting her eyes run over his body in one quick sweep. Once they reached his chin, she teasingly raised her eyebrows and locked her eyes on his. 'You look nice today, Norman.'

Norman looked at me, then back at Yvonne. 'Thank you, I appreciate that.' He was fidgeting with a silvery key in his hand. His lungs filled with air.

'Edward,' Yvonne said, 'you're expected in meeting room twelve.' A mischievous grin appeared on Edward's face, giving away his intention to send a thoughtless quip in return. 'They're already there,' she said as soon as she noticed his lips parting.

'Of course,' Edward said, taken aback. He eyed everyone except Norman, nodded, and left. Yvonne followed him with a slow yet steady gait, hypnotising everyone with the click-clacking sounds the ground underneath her made.

Much of what happened next isn't worth telling as I would be simply repeating myself - that's how 'exciting' my life got. Each day felt less unique than the previous one: most mornings would start in the same group of men, digging deep into each other's daily lives, only to find nothing of real substance. Months passed and with them disappeared the fascination with which I was showered. I wasn't completely forgotten, I still had my place by my owner, but the spotlight of conversations never turned on me again.

'Was it a late night? Eh, do you need help ironing your shirts?' Edward once said with great gusto, as was his habit to dedicate a comment or two to one of the others. 'Ha! Yes, that's certainly a tie. An interesting choice,' was another remark of his which prompted Norman to throw the tie out once he got home that night. No one would have the energy or desire to object to Edward, so everyone would nod in assent, giving a half-smile in response, or send an ill-conceived excuse back (like 'It was a gift. Had to pretend I like it').

The light conversations Norman had with Yvonne grew colder by the day. Her sudden need to distance herself was a mystery I couldn't solve. Norman seemed confused, too. 'I should've said something,' he mumbled through his teeth one evening on our way home, letting out a low hissing sound with each 's'. 'Hell, why didn't I say anything nice back. She's clearly interested.' He let his thoughts roam for a bit. 'Nonsense. She would've told me that. Like that time,' he said glancing at me. 'No wonder. She thinks I look like garbage! Yes, Edward with all his remarks made her think that.'

Despite the hours he spent ironing his shirts, removing lint from his jackets and choosing a tie, their conversations ceased entirely. His touch when it came to me became rough, his face - expressionless. Our mornings became a routine, one he tried to rush through as fast as possible. He pushed me around with no regard for how I felt or looked. I struggled to see the same picture I saw all those months ago at The Mile whenever our reflection caught my eye again. I wanted to and I really tried. But I looked weak. Small. I could see bruises appearing on my skin. Why is that happening? I thought. It can't be happening. If only you could know how sorry I am.

After a while people started noticing me again. Their looks weren't full of fascination anymore, rather, they would furrow their eyebrows for a brief second and then look away, as if trying to shake themselves out of a dream. Upon seeing that, Norman would blush and attempt to leave the situation with one or two quips that lightened the atmosphere. But there was no twinkle in his eyes, and his smile bore no meaning. I hated seeing him like that. And he hated seeing me. Just me.

It didn't take long for Norman to relocate me to the same walk-in wardrobe the Backwood used to inhabit before me. Perhaps it was meant to be. Perhaps all of us have to deal with the fact that at some point we must end up in a stuffy room where the air is stale and the only source of light is the slit under the door. I didn't doubt his reasoning; he knew what was best for me, for us.

Sometime during my second month there, we began our morning earlier than usual. He pulled me out abruptly, drew himself close, and started scrutinising every cut and blemish on my skin. 'How did that happen? Need to be more careful,' he mumbled, shaking his head. He squeezed a bead of thick creamy substance on a piece of cloth, slowly rolling the tube from the other side, then squished it by folding the cloth in half, and smeared it on every bruise he could spot on my skin. I was left alone in the open until the glistening smudges dried off. Once he returned, he proceeded with his usual morning routine. I didn't care how he took me anymore. I wouldn't have cared even if he had given a taste of me to those he called friends. Though what purpose would that have served? They had their own listless companions. I bet they felt the same. Day after day, drowning in the same tedious torture. Even the pain loses its meaning in the process. Only memories of my past, of times when I thought I could resist, hold myself together and even hurt him back, lightened my mood.

'You're loose,' he said when he was done. 'Do we need to get you stitched up?' I wanted to take his words as a joke, but the sourness in his eyes made me rethink that. 'No matter. That's not gonna be a problem where we're going.'

That day our destination was far away from the concrete jungle of the city. It took us three hours, but once we got there and out of the car I thought I was being held upside down: the vastness of the sky-blue sea which suddenly opened up in front of me overwhelmed my mind. I felt dizzy. The soft gusts pushing us away from the edge of the cliff on which we stood suffocated me. Look ahead, a voice in my head said, can you see the seam holding the sky and the sea together? We stood there for a while, then sat on the rocks nearby, letting silence shroud us. Only cawing gulls and whistles of wind didn't let me forget I was still alive and still part of the reality I'd grown to despise.

The slow stroll on the beach that followed was an educating experience: I learnt that despite your biggest efforts to concentrate your focus on the serene views around you, you cannot forget the dry pain of sand filling your unhealed wounds. Prompted by another gust which filled the gaps between his body and the shirt, Norman shivered and stopped. 'Better get back,' he said, rolling down his sleeves. As we were walking to the car, I turned back to see the waves crashing against the shore for one last time. The drive home was quick; the radio lulled me to sleep.

The next day, our morning didn't follow its usual direction either. After a late yet filling breakfast, before heading out, Norman made sure I looked presentable: the dirt - proof that yesterday wasn't a dream - was swiftly brushed off; the cuts that were still unclean and full of sand were covered with a sticky brown cream that was meant to conceal and not heal. It doesn't make sense. It will come off. The buzz in my head caused by the lack of logic in his actions overwhelmed the pain. They will see how I look at one point or another. Do you not understand that? But he understood that perfectly and I knew that. My looks wouldn't be a concern for him for much longer.

The walk through the alley towards The Mile gave me plenty of time to examine the wooden sign bearing its name. The argent capital letters of 'The Mile' had been etched on my memory for the longest time, but the slightly gilded part that came after it, written in a barely legible subscripted cursive form, revealed to me only today. The Mile... I began assembling the full name in my mind, in a Man's Shoes. I wonder what's that about. Norman increased the pace the closer we got to the shop. The moment the bell over the door rang, my heart was gripped by the same fear I'd been battling before I left this place. And it was a nostalgic fear, too; I felt like I was back where I was supposed to be, physically and more so mentally.

'Good morning,' the shopkeeper said. I couldn't recognise her voice; the buxom physique and age-untarnished face weren't the features the shopkeeper I was used to seeing there possessed. Was she recycled too? I was surprised I'd never thought about what happens when Norman and others of his kind become ready to be recycled. Perhaps that doesn't happen in their world? Turning his eyes from one side of the shop to the other, he nodded his head in greeting and let out a dry 'hello.' 'Are you looking for an upgrade? Do you have anything particular in mind?' she said. Norman mused for a moment, looking at something on the farther end of the aisle to his right.

'Yes, this Bianchi here served me tolerably well,' with a tilt of his head he directed the shopkeeper's attention to me, 'so something of a similar style would be perfect. But a bit darker. They said this was the only colour they had back then and I thought I'd grow to like it, but, honestly, that was a mistake. So now I'm looking for a darker brown model.' I wanted to apologise, forgetting even to consider the unfairness of being culpable for the way I was made to look. The shopkeeper nodded with his every word. After a while they started walking and exploring different corners of the shop. His attitude towards me during the search for my replacement was demeaning. The way he sampled each of them, the way his limbs jerked as he was trying to fit himself into them - it all reminded me of his routine, our routine, executed with vigour I hadn't seen since our first days together. Only now I wasn't involved in the play. I was forced to stand by the gap of the curtain of the same dimly lit room at the back of the shop, feeling the intent stare of the shopkeeper going over me and landing on Norman and whichever model he was trying out. Later, as he turned to the shopkeeper, I managed to catch his gaze for just a moment before he averted it in shame.

'Too tight?' asked the shopkeeper, twirling her hair. Then, as if anticipating the answer already, she turned and started walking. 'Shall I bring another one?' With a slight nod, he sent her hurrying towards the backroom. By the time she returned, he had moved the previous model out of the way. 'Here,' she said, 'now it should feel better. Somewhat softer, too. And the colour is the same.'

I could smell the lingering freshness and unharnessed potential once Norman and my successor walked past me. It was the same smell we all emanated when we were new. It brought life back into his lungs. I was glad he found the problem. The confidence his new companion exuded was palpable; its mocking look forced my eyes down. I deserve that. I'd hoped I'd be different. Better.

'Sir, now that you've made your decision,' the shopkeeper said, 'do you still need that?' With a graceful flick of hand, she pointed at me. 'Shall I take care of it?'

He didn't look back. 'Please do,' he said, rummaging in his inner jacket pocket and pulling his wallet out. The coldness of his voice numbed me. I'd always thought I would be pleading for mercy and becoming a wailing nuisance before being taken away. But when the shopkeeper carried me through the door that had a sign that read 'Private,' I kept my mouth shut and my eyes dry; when she placed me in a dark cardboard box with the label saying, 'For Recycling. Full-Grain Leather,' I didn't resist. I could feel that life had been cruel to me, but when the flaps of the box closed, I began wishing for more of it.

Is my life really going to end? I asked myself. If I'm to be recycled, I'll continue serving. I do hope my memories will be recycled, too. Taken apart and given away. If servitude is my destiny, I would like to live through it breathing nothing but blissful ignorance.


  1. Wow! The cruelty. The misogyny. Profoundly sad!

  2. What an extraordinary short story - a comp of The Handmaid’s Tale and I, Robot !

    Norman’s biological needs are met by the sex replicant (is it a robot? a clone? a mix? something else? It is our sentient protagonist, mute, but with many biological qualities) and Norman’s emotional needs are (not exactly!) met by his friend and coworker group. But something is clearly lacking for him… …he has an opportunity to attempt a real relationship with Yvonne, an actual woman, but he has too few tools at his disposal to be successful in such an endeavor.

    The societal metaphors abound: narcissistic alpha males marrying and then divorcing 1st, 2nd, 3rd, etc. wives as they age; incels and the general plight of young men today, with internet pornography so plentiful, they see little to be gained from an actual relationship with a real woman; the objectification of women’s bodies by heterosexual men brought to its ad absurdum conclusion...

    This story is terrific and there is so much there to be unpacked.
    Also, wow, excellent circular story structure ends where it begins, and this story does this literally.

    Great job!

    (As a tangent, I am fascinated by sex robots as a growing industry in our world. The male sex drive has driven so much technological innovation via economic demand - printing, film, magazines, cable, VHS, DVDs, computers, data storage, then internet pornography, now generative AI imaging and movies. I won’t pollute these comments with links, but physical sex robot technology is fascinating and advancing rapidly. This story may be a case of reality catching up to fiction all too soon…)

  3. A profound, sad story about the disconnection between the sexes. What brought it on? Pornography? Technology? Is this a tale about past relationships between men and women or the bleak future? I fear it is about all of these these things. Well done, Simon.

  4. This fiction asked more questions than it answered. We could have been in a repressive, dystopian future, where what passed for “women” were exchangeable, recyclable entities. Or, we could’ve been in 1850s North America, where Black women were similarly used, misused and abused. With the AI generated image, it seemed that the women were androids of some sort, but they scarred, bruised, and were cut with hard use. Norman’s indifference and abruptness and dispassionate use of the female figure could be likened to slaveowners’ attitudes as well. At the end, noting that the box containing the unfortunate “slave” was marked “Full Grain Leather,” one harkened back to Nazi Germany, when Nazis made lampshades from the skin of Jews. Dark, grisly story, but well told.

  5. I really enjoyed this, a kind of adult version of Klara in the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro. This was raw and tinged with sadness, but also very thought-provoking. I liked the element of synesthesia with the bit about the flavour of words.