This Automaton by David Wheldon ( Nightjar Press) is a strange fragment of a tale.
The first page tells us that the manuscript of the story was found amongst the effects of a British infantryman killed in 1918. It is dated 1905 and relates an episode in the life of the boy who, we presume, would later become that unfortunate soldier.
The child lives with his parents, the caretakers of a rundown theatre in Somerset. Life is threadbare and insecure. In the course of the tale the boy encounters three female figures who all make a profound impression on him.
The first is Mrs Lisle, house keeper for the rich local family who own the theatre. Mrs Lisle is clearly an intelligent and educated woman who has found herself in a lower position in society than she expected. She seems to recognise the boy and his family as kindred spirits and guesses that the obviously intelligent boy is a scholarship pupil at the local grammar school. The child observes her slim delicate hand, ‘ The hand of an educated lady’. Although at one point he says ‘ I don’t remember much about her – I only saw her once ‘ He later admits that she made a considerable impression upon him and that he never forgot her.
Wheldon’s skill is to convey so much in so few words – I guess that is the essence of a short story! Mrs Lisle appears only for couple of pages but we feel so keenly her frustration and despair at her lot in life. She is marooned somehow as a senior servant in a country house where the air is ‘profoundly still’. Her thirst for company is such that even this young child is fascinating to her,
‘I miss intelligent conversation, you know. It’s rare: more so than you would think’.
She stands at the tradesman’s entrance and watches after the boy as he walks down the long drive, returning his wave when he turns back on impulse upon reaching the gateposts.
The same day he encounters the daughter of Mrs Lisle’s employer. Pretty and friendly, she gives up her first-class seat to accompany the young boy travelling alone. Miss Persey walks with a stick and her cheery , ‘ We are young, you and I : we have our lives before us’ sits uneasily with her flushed cheeks and our assumption that the young boy will be killed before he reaches middle age.
The third female is an automaton brought to the faded theatre as an attraction by an impresario. The Automaton is a ‘slim wax work woman’ seated at a desk who plays chess with the general public whilst the impresario takes bets on the winner. She is a brilliant chess player, beating all comers and leaving the customers unwilling to bet against her. Finally, the impresario requires her to pretend to lose so that he can make more money from gambling. But how can an automaton choose to lose? She seems sentient to the boy and to others who encounter her but who made her and what is she really capable of? Her slender form and dignity reflect that of Mrs Lisle as does her fate – surely such a brilliant creation was meant for better things?
We are not in that golden era of pre-First World War Edwardian England so often depicted in fiction. The realities of society are depicted here. The predicament of women with no power or agency over their own lives is clear but the same impotence affects the boy. He is destined to be killed as a mere pawn on that smoky chessboard of war he glimpsed in the automaton’s eyes. As so often in life there is no happy ending, no resolution or explanation of events. As I said, a fragment and a tantalising one.