For My Parents and ALL My Grandparents.
The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away.
The Book of Job 1:21
I can’t be sure of the actual date my father became a robot, but I know for certain it was the autumn of 1943. May. I remember because my father had come back from the war nine months before, at the start of spring in September. Mother had said the timing was auspicious.
And when I say he came back, I mean only part of him came back. And by the time he became a robot, our crops were struggling. We were struggling. My father was struggling.
May in Richmond, in Natal, was the most beautiful time on our farm, with the blossoms on a dozen peach trees lining the left of the driveway, a stunning invitation leading up to the farmhouse. Sunday lunches spent with our cousins. These get-togethers with mother’s Boer side of the family were a lively energy, bustling with laughter and scents of cooking and baking preparations. None of father’s relatives lived in South Africa. He had been the only one of the two Charman brothers willing to take the month-long ship journey from Newcastle upon Tyne to Durban Harbour in search of greener pastures.
But the Fenske clan was more than enough for the town, and our farm, to handle. A shout of “Mary” from mother, or a shriller “Marie” from Tannie Cecilia, had me and the six other kids ducking a swatting dishtowel – our many attempts at sneaking a vetkoek, koeksister or soetkoekie dashed by the sting of a damp rag.
This one was a different May for our family.
The months after father came back from the war, we would find him in our kitchen, nursing a mug, usually empty, between his palms as he hunched over the rough, worn central table. He would barely look up, twisting an acknowledgement of anyone’s presence with his mouth. I usually said something to try break the awful silence that would hang in the room, but I eventually stopped that and rather took what I needed from the bread bin or the fridge and bolted from the room.
Christmas had gone by with little celebration. My twelfth birthday came and went that February with not much joy and hope in the air, and little understanding of what was unfolding for us all. Now that the years have given me space to dwell on that time, it’s as if father spent his days and weeks slowly coming back to us by occupying specific parts of the house for a given period.
Mother had always said father considered their kitchen to be the heart of the home.
“It’s where a family’s sustenance and warmth come from, Mary,” she had said to me.
I see now that his journey back to us began in our kitchen.
Of the entire farmhouse that I came to know and love, the first part to be built, to mother’s desired dimensions, was the kitchen and dining room. Fashioned after many traditional rondavels in the area, it was solid. Father had laid every brick, packed all the mud plastering around the walls and secured the wattle frame for the thatch roof. Mother had received some tutelage from the neighbouring farm workers to weave the thatching to cover her pride of place, and painted the whitewash walls inside and out herself.
The solid wood-burning stove was a masterful device. Yes, ideal for those large family meals, but also for the simpler day-to-day snacks like toasting days-old bread or roasting our own farm-fresh mielies on its scalding, hot surface.
The rectangular open hatch in the thick central wall had a varnished imbuia wood mantel for food served in mother’s pots and platters, to rest on. While the archway at the far end gave everyone easy access to the dining room on the other side.
Double doors opened out onto the garden and hills rising at the back where father allowed the neighbouring farms to graze horses, but not the cows.
Those horse fields would be a sore point and a good lesson for me when, after much nagging from a seven-year-old Mary Charman, father had acquiesced and bought us a Shetland pony. Pepsi turned out to be a right bastard, and unbeknownst to my innocent mind, his “horseplay” with the other horses was, in fact, him trying to mate. I had the unfortunate task of tending to that little imp, along with the usual chores around the chickens and pigpen, right up to the day father put a rifle bullet in his head after a near-fatal blow from a female Basutu pony hoof had cracked his skull. He messed with the filly Jasmine one too many times. Still, it was a sad day.
The second building phase was adding the main living space to the right of the rondavel, and had, with the growing Charman family, ended going up another floor a few years later.
It was in this third and final phase that he built the stunning central fireplace with the local boulders and rocks, rising solidly through the first floor and filling the three huge bedrooms, and the entire house, with its warmth. The lounge’s French doors could be opened up for the stuffy summer air to flow out of the house, presenting a wide vista from the wraparound verandah. The family bathroom, two metres wide and running the length of the side of the house, unfortunately remained where it was on the ground floor to the right of the lounge. Not fun in winter, but we would linger just that bit longer on our journey past the evening fireplace, toes warming on the thick pile carpet, then a quick dash up the stairs and hugging the rough chimney wall on the first-floor landing where our blankets would already be warming up. Next one to bath!
For weeks leading up to that late afternoon in May, Connell had been keeping to himself, tinkering on God-knows-what in the workshop. Since the remote-control incident, I had steered clear of my brother. More on that later. Occasionally there would be a clatter of tins – the stacked empty condensed milk cans father, for some odd reason, had been collecting and stashing in the outbuilding – followed by a muffled curse.
I was on my way back around the house from giving Pepsi a reluctant grooming, combing out the black and white hairs from the course brush, when I slowed my pace.
My brother was dragging what looked at first like a bizarre sculpture of twisted metal and pipes and spokes, and stopped in the middle of the gravel driveway.
Spotting me, he said, “Call father, Mez.”
I would normally have huffed and said no, but something in his tone, along with my curiosity at the contraption he was beginning to neatly lay out into a more discernible shape, sent me dashing past Amos and Niki pushing their Dinky Toy cars and trucks on the verandah, and into the house.
Father was in his usual position at the kitchen table, and mother dusting in the dining room, but I caught my breath and forged on with the task.
My hand gripping his forearm seemed to rouse him, startle him in fact, as well as myself, and he blinked his amazement.
“Connell wants you outside, father.”
“What’s the commotion, Mary?” Asked mother, craning through the serving hatch.
It took father a moment and he stood up and made his way trailing hesitantly behind me, my hand remaining gripped on him, closely followed by mother.
“It’s like a robot,” Amos whispered as we all stopped in our tracks at the top step. From that vantage point I could see the human-like shape splayed out in the dirt.
Connell silently waved us over and we approached down the stairs with caution.
“Bring father closer, Mez.”
It was an odd sensation having Connell instruct father, via me, and it was good he was talking to me at all.
Connell hadn’t always been like that. In fact, the robot mania was a good example of who my brother really was, and should have been, as he grew up.
One afternoon in late September of ‘41, before my father went off to war with the Royal Durban Light Infantry to fight in Italian North Africa, Connell had dragged us all around the wireless to listen to one of his science fiction tales: a radio play adaptation of Karel Čapek’s stage play, “R.U.R.” or “Rossum’s Universal Robots.” It was as if Connell’s thirteenth birthday, two weeks before, would never end. I have to admit my envy at father spending time with my brother in his workshop, showing him around the chain and pedal system and the finer brake cables. All watched by me at a safe distance after repeated shooing away by Connell. Oh, and he just loved to skid his flashy new bicycle at me on the driveway, kicking up dust and stones at my feet. So childish.
That giant, old Philips radio set, shiny wood veneer over its curved top stood just below my chin at that age. Bought in 1939 by father and mother, it stood to the right of the fireplace with the wire aerial spidering up the wall for maximum reach for any signal in our area.
Kneeling in front of the controls, Connell had the latest edition of the Radio Times magazine twisted into a pipe with the programming schedule for the day facing out and circled with erratic pencil marks. It had been delivered just after the said birthday, along with his Boy’s Own Paper and my copy of Girl’s Own Paper.
Connell turned the large black dial. Nothing.
“Why is it not turning on, Connell?” I asked impatiently.
“The tubes are warming up, Mez. Patience.”
At least ten seconds passed and a loud pop had us all jump out of our skins. Connell sheepishly turned the volume button back to halfway.
He then wasted no time turning the tuning dial, double-checking it was set to FM. The device whined and crackled. Out of thin air the sound of music, an orchestra, no a small band, rang out from the speakers behind the rough cloth covering. The music stopped with a flourish and a man’s voice said, “This is the BBC.”
As if Connell needed to tell anyone to be quiet as we held our collective breath. Nevertheless, he shushed us. “It’s starting.”
I must admit that it was a rather engaging production. The sounds were terrifying and electrifying. The robots seemed to come to life in the wireless. As if they were in the room with us.
Niki had been three years old, too young to take it all in, and instead he fumbled around mother’s ankles for the hour and fifteen-minute broadcast.
The bent magazine was passed around from one family member to the next, eyes fixed on the haunting illustration in the top right of the page featuring the line of zombie-like, mechanical robots marching from the smoke stacks of the factory behind them. As if our imaginations needed any reference for what the wireless was already conjuring up around us.
I never did admit to my brother that it was one of the most memorable times of our family’s lives, for me. It was a time I hold as the pinnacle of happiness that we would never again feel together.
One of the final lines uttered by a robot stuck with Connell and one he would whisper on the day our father became a robot. “You are stronger than all the Robots.”
There was a slight resistance as I tugged father closer to the rig on the driveway. I have to admit the remains of my brother’s neglected bicycle were an impressive sight in this unique arrangement.
The handlebars were inverted and ran along the top of father’s shoulders, its curve around the neck, and each handle fitting neatly over and down either shoulder. Each of the rubberless wheels were tied from the handlebars to sit at the chest and back, with the front chainwheel – like a sigil or badge – woven with copper wire into the converging spokes in the middle and topped by the V of the saddle at the breastbone. The bicycle chain had been split in two and connected from the handlebars up to a hammered and reshaped cooking pot lid, like a clunky helmet. What was startling were the two spokes protruding from crude holes at the top like insect antennae, and the rust-mottled, thin steel mudguard, bent into an S that curved from over the brow, along the back of the helmet and a tail-like curve from the back of the neck outward. The neat row of screws and exposed nuts gave it an almost decorative look.
Both arms had a sawn-off pole from the bicycle frame, attached by wire at the handlebar joint and a thin animal collar of leather and a buckle that looked to be secured around each elbow.
Without raising his eyes to meet father’s concerned frown, Connell patted the air for him to kneel.
Father looked at me and nodded. I glanced at my hand white-knuckled around his forearm and let go. He took a step forward, turned his back to Connell and crouched down in front of his son.
“Mez,” Connell waved me over.
We took positions on either side of the contraption and grabbed a handle each, while Connell held the helmet up. He managed to easily bring his side up and mother quickly stepped in to help me at my end over father’s head. The front wheel was held out as it moved past his face, eyes narrowed in case of any metallic jabs, and arms stiffly at his side.
Finally, it was on him and Connell set about tying the leather straps onto each elbow as we all stood back in amazement.
I hadn’t recognised the loose slab of wood lying on the ground where the robot frame had been, but my brother reached down and picked it up, standing next to me, mother, Amos and a restless Nikolaas. The remote-control! As impressive as the suit itself, he had rebuilt it after I had practically destroyed it.
The day the remote-control, broke father had been spending his days quietly sitting in the lounge, wireless never turned on.
A word like POW, or even the phrase prisoner of war, was never something I was really aware of until well after the outbreak in 1939. Among other words like liberate, Axis and Allies or the always-hissed Nazis, it became something the wireless news reports would loudly and frequently repeat. But after father’s return, it became a hushed word, whispered among ourselves, or heard by mother with the volume turned low when father was outside or in the workshop.
Rather than his usual, single wingback and matching foot rest, or even the massive, cozy three-seater settee facing out over the verandah and view of the garden, he had made his spot on the right side of the two-seater. More unusual was the fact that this was the wooden framed set, which was stiff and uncomfortable for long sittings.
That day, I glimpsed father sitting stiffly in that chair reading the paper. I know this because I tiptoed through the house and up the stairs with the weighty block of wood stuffed under my jumper, muffling the tinging of the bicycle bell as I took two stairs at a time. It was my brother’s pride which he had tolerated my leaning over his shoulder while he crafted this amazing device in the workshop. “For the robot,” he had whispered to me, completely oblivious of the enormity of “the robot” to come.
I mentioned Connell had his issues of Boy’s Own Paper and I had my Girl’s Own Paper.
I remember the first issue mother ordered by post, just for me for when I would be ready to read by myself. The April 1934 edition featured two pilots illustrated on the cover, whom I always imagined were those written about in the article “Looking Up for a Living” inside – Pauline Gower and Dorothy Spicer. I imagined the one standing with her bright red flight jacket and hat and goggles to be Dorothy, the ground engineer to the pilot Pauline seated in the cockpit. These “lady pilots,” as the writer Captain W. E. Johns mentions, were few and far between. I’m sure that issue was misplaced soon after the war began, but thinking back now, all those years ago, it had featured some of the German pilots like Fraulein Hanna Reisch – the world endurance glider.
I always thought more of being like Pauline, commandeering a flight across the Indian Ocean to Australia, rather than the writer’s idea of “a young and attractive girl casually serving coffee in an air liner, possibly in rough weather, is certain to create a feeling of confidence amongst the passengers.” Bah! Contact! And we’re off, skittering along the runway with the air buffeting our goggles. Really, who needs to be serving coffee? That was the best issue. Then they came out with that god-awful pink cover for all of their 1941 issues.
Those subscriptions had long fallen away and we would read and reread, even Connell sneaking a peak at my small pile when he found the chance. I could always tell when he had been at them in my corner of the bedroom, a spine out of place, or the returned issue in the wrong date order. My brother was not known for his prowess, and not one able to sneak up on you unawares during hide and seek.
Amos was always too busy in the middle of the room with his cars, traipsing sand inside for his dirt roads, or wooden blocks constructed into forts and castles.
Three siblings in a single bedroom sounds cramped but let me tell you about our bedroom.
It was huge. And, for three of us with all our various bits and bobs and beds and paraphernalia, it was big enough. Through a broken windowpane, Amos learned the hard way that a big room did not mean ball games. I loved that shared space with my two brothers but I have to say I was excited every time I stuck my head into Niki’s nursery. It housed his smaller bed, chest of drawers and large oak wardrobe, but bit by bit I realised the accumulated nursery furniture like the baby changing table, the ceiling-hanging mobile and other items, had been moved out. And then there was mother saying for the past year that a girl needs her own bedroom.
Connell would simply roll his eyes when I would turn to him with gritted teeth, eyes wide with anticipation, and fists clenched white-knuckled at my chest. It was in this private bedroom, my future suite all to myself, that I had taken the robot controller into, unseen by Connell. Like any true pilot, man or woman, I wanted to take control.
Connell’s bicycle bell had been screwed onto the top edge of the wood while the steel emblem of the Raleigh bicycle company, its single, distinct letter R hammered flat and screwed into the centre of the block. It is really no surprise that he would go on to study engineering at Pietermaritzburg University.
With one on the left of the badge and another to the right, the bearing housings removed from each bicycle wheel was held in place by a large bolt and wing nut. Dials for controlling. Scribbled above them, in Connell’s untidy script was left/right and forward/backward respectively.
I was so mesmerised by the dials, and ever so tempted to ring that bell that I had forgotten my surroundings. The creaking of the floorboards upstairs had me frozen in place, breath held and tensed in every muscle.
Connell was in our bedroom next door.
His voice grumbled as drawers were open and shut, something tossed aside on the floor. And then a loud thud. He was prone to physically stomping his foot when he was exasperated. He was looking for the robot controller. The problem with many wardrobes, despite how popular fantasy may portray them, is they are fairly top heavy. Especially if they have old, bulky suitcases on top.
So, when I silently placed the controller on the nursery room floor, quietly squeaked open the left door and took a step up, I was rather startled at the dark maw of the inside of the cupboard swallowing me whole as it toppled over with a thunderous smash and crash.
Until father rushed in and lifted the heavy wooden item of furniture, the darkness was momentarily safe.
To this day, as I sit here forty years later, I’m looking at that wardrobe in my study and the impressions, dents, gouges – or whatever you wish to call them – in the door are like Connell’s eyes glaring at me through the decades. The robot controller was obliterated. The bell had rung what I assumed was its last. And my brother was not going to talk to me for a while. There had been some screamed threats of burning my magazines to hell or something to that effect, and suppers were awkward.
Everyone including father jumped at the clang of the bicycle bell. Connell had turned the robot on. We watched as the same realisation dawned on father and, at first, he struggled to get his balance. We dared not approach or help for fear of being reproached by the controller, Connell.
Finally, the six-foot frame of my father stood stiffly, long antennae reaching into the clear blue sky.
“It’s like a Roman general’s helmet,” I said.
“No, silly,” whispered Connell. “Like James Fenimore Cooper’s adventure.”
I don’t know why, but his admonishment rankled me, and I hissed back at him, “Father is not a machine, Connell.”
“Rossum’s Robots are not tin cans, Mez. This is no tin man or Wizard of Oz. Rossum’s are flesh and blood.”
Connell flicked one of the bearing dials with a rattle, and to our alarm, the robot moved. It had turned to face us.
I know we were all stunned, but I turned to look at my brother and his face had flushed and his eyes wider than I ever saw them. Joy.
Without looking at his control box, he flicked the other dial.
The robot stepped forward a pace. Without prompting, the robot tilted its head towards Connell.
It was the first time I could remember the two of them looking eye to eye. Though it was nothing that we could see with our eyes, it was as if a current, a radio signal was running between them. An electric charge ran through all of us. More gently this time, Connell tentatively turned the dial again.
The robot stepped right up to my brother, towering over him with its metal frame. The shoulders squeaked and the leather-bound arms extended.
The robot was hugging Connell.
was born in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa and is now a resident in Oxford, United Kingdom, as the 2022 James Currey Fellow at the African Studies Centre, Oxford University. His background is Graphic Design, Creative Direction and Film. His first short story was published in 2015 in the “Imagine Africa 500” speculative fiction anthology, followed by more in the “Beneath This Skin” 2017 Edition of Aké Review, the debut edition of Enkare Review 2016, Volume 3 of “AfroSF” in 2018, Omenana Magazine and more. He was featured in Part 11 of the 100 African Writers of SFF on Strange Horizons. His debut speculative fiction novel, Soul Searching, was published in the UK and US in August/September 2020 – and was shortlisted for the Nommo Awards by the African Speculative Fiction Society, in May 2021. He is a charter member of the African Speculative Fiction Society and its Nommo Awards initiative. His unpublished YA fantasy novel, Bones & Runes, was a top 5 finalist in the 2021 inaugural James Currey Prize for African Literature, and will be published in the UK in February 2022. Embleton was awarded the James Currey Fellowship at African Studies Centre, Oxford University 2022.