[Preamble: We listen to stories when we're kids because they have a soporific effect. There's no reason why you should stop telling stories when you "grow up", particularly if you enjoy improvising. This is a story I came up with on the fly at the request of a certain young lady who couldn't sleep last night, given the stimulus words of "robots", "clocks" and "cheesecake". No preparation was involved, hence the total lack of structure and nonsensical, improvised nature of it. But I was quite pleased with the eventual result.]
There once was a robot. His name was Trundlebot, because he wasn’t very good at moving quickly on the wheels he had instead of feet. Trundlebot didn’t mind though, because he was a robot and didn’t know any better.
Trundlebot was the only robot employee at the Grognak clock factory, the first of his kind and something of an experiment for the factory owners. He was made from leftover clock parts and a few electronic gizmos that old Mr Grognak had ordered from the Internet against the express wishes of Mrs Grognak.
The Grognaks’ son, Jeremiah, who was five years old, was fascinated by Trundlebot, but Mr Grognak, still wary of the robot’s unproven track record, didn’t let him too close. But Jeremiah longed to see Trundlebot up close, to look at him, talk to him and see what sort of person he was.
Mr and Mrs Grognak indulged Jeremiah with fanciful tales of what Trundlebot used to get up to before he came to the Grognak clock factory, taking care not to disappoint Jeremiah with the sad truth that Trundlebot was an unthinking, unfeeling machine who knew nothing of human life.
But Jeremiah was unsatisfied with just stories. He wanted to know what made Trundlebot tick himself, so one chilly winter night, he wrapped himself up in the warmest clothes he could find, stole his way downstairs and crept out of the house door and into the grounds of the factory.
The chill wind battered his young face, but it wasn’t far to go. He crept across the courtyard to the front door of the main building and knowing that his father always left it unlocked due to the big iron gates outside, pushed it open slowly and carefully. It was dark inside, but the faint glow of the power-saving lights was enough for Jeremiah to see by. He heard the familiar ticking of the clocks as he walked through the corridors, looking around for what he desperately hoped would be his new robot friend.
He found his way to a door, which he recognised from the times his father had shown him around as the staff’s break room. It was eerily quiet inside, the ticking of the clocks outside a stark contrast to the gentle hum of the fridge that was the only sound in here.
Overcome with curiosity and not really knowing why, he reached for the fridge door and opened it. The bright light from within flooded out, and he shielded his eyes as they adjusted to the sudden change in ambience. The fridge was mostly bare, save for a single plate on the middle shelf which bore a cheesecake, topped with sticky sauce and sweet berries. Jeremiah reached for the plate, then paused for a moment. The cheesecake clearly belonged to someone, but it also clearly hadn’t been touched. Who would leave a delicious-looking cheesecake like that just lying around? He extended a finger and took off just a tiny blob of the sticky crimson sauce atop the cake, and licked his finger. It was as good as it looked, but he knew he shouldn’t touch any more.
He closed the fridge and was about to walk out, when he heard a clattering from outside the break room door. It sounded like someone was coming. Jeremiah didn’t know what to do. The only way out of the break room was through the door he’d come in by, and that was where the sounds were coming from. He looked around frantically and eventually opted to dive under a chair and hope whoever was coming wouldn’t see him. He heard the door open, and a ticking noise, along with what sounded like something being dragged along the floor.
Looking out from under the chair, he saw a familiar set of wheels. It was Trundlebot, but what was he up to?
The ticking robot trundled over to the fridge and jerkily extended one of its arms, yanking the door open rather forcefully. Jeremiah was fascinated. What on Earth was the silly little robot doing in the fridge? He heard the “clink” of metal on porcelain, and it was apparent that the robot was taking the cheesecake out of the fridge. Jeremiah heard the door shut again, and Trundlebot wheeled himself out, apparently oblivious to the young boy’s presence.
Jeremiah followed Trundlebot back through the factory corridors at a discreet distance, to the building’s front entrance and out into the courtyard. Across the courtyard, and into the Grognak household.
Jeremiah didn’t follow the robot in straight away, because he didn’t want to get caught. But after a moment, curiosity got the better of him and he crept in.
Inside, he was astonished to discover Trundlebot had not only set down the cheesecake in the middle of the dining table, but also set three places with plates, knives and forks.
“What are you doing?” said Jeremiah, unable to restrain his childish curiosity, and not even sure if the robot could understand him. The robot, apparently only now becoming aware of the child’s presence, paused for a moment and turned around on his wheels.
“One year since activation,” he said in a raspy metallic voice. “Operator Grognak efficient and kind operator. Protocol dictates giving of gift.”
Of course, thought Jeremiah. Trundlebot had been a part of their life for a year from tomorrow, and he wanted to celebrate.
“Did you make the cake?” asked Jeremiah.
“Affirmative,” said Trundlebot. “Internet recipe. Delia Smith.”
Jeremiah smiled at the robot. He was sure this would be a big surprise for his mother and father, and he looked forward to seeing their faces.
There was a sudden “snark” sound, and a long strip of paper began to emerge from a slot on the front of Trundlebot. Jeremiah took hold of it as it came out, further and further. Eventually, the other end dropped from the slot and Jeremiah picked up the finished article.
It was a banner, printed in red and gold. “THANK YOU”, it said in large friendly letters. Trundlebot raised his arms and Jeremiah, sensing what the robot was thinking, carefully laid the banner across so it looked like he was holding it up.
“Gratitude for assistance,” said Trundlebot. “Now child-unit must engage sleep programme.” Jeremiah nodded, and crept up the stairs to bed.
The following morning, the Grognak family rose early and went down to breakfast. They were astonished to discover Trundlebot standing mutely in their living room, holding a large red and gold “THANK YOU” banner, and a delicious-looking cheesecake on the table.
“Oh my goodness!” said Mrs Grognak. “Did you do all this, Jeremiah?”
Jeremiah peered at Trundlebot, who said nothing. He swore that one of the robot’s eyes blinked on and off briefly, and he smiled.
“Yes,” he said. “It’s Trundlebot’s birthday. So it’s only fair we celebrate it, even if he can’t, isn’t it?”
So they all ate cake and had a lovely breakfast. Trundlebot and Mr Grognak made their way back to the factory and started their day of work.
Jeremiah didn’t hear Trundlebot speak again, but he knew that the silly little robot was more than just old clock parts and mysterious electronics. He was alive, and that made Jeremiah very happy indeed.