Malcolm Gantry’s finger hovered over the Enter button. He’d locked the door, even though he knew his wife was at work. He wasn’t quite sure why. After all, he reasoned, it’s not like he was cheating on her. Not really. He stabbed the button.
The screen split in half, like a curtain opening, to reveal a round-faced blonde with enormous breasts and a lot of lipstick.
‘Well hi,’ she said in a Texan drawl, ‘I’m Destiny. I’m real glad to -’
Malcolm hit the Next button. Destiny was replaced instantly by an Asian girl, who blinked twice and looked nervous.
‘Hello duck,’ she said in a Manchester accent. ‘My name’s Jemima.’
Malcolm hit Next again. A succession of women paraded themselves for his inspection: a range of nationalities, physiques, accents, face shapes, hair colours.
He stopped at a girl with short, jet black hair, pale blue eyes and sharp features. There was something about her. Her name, she announced in an Welsh accent, was Verity. She looked at him appraisingly.
‘Well now,’ she said. ‘Caught your eye, is it?’
Malcolm tapped the Accent button, and a small map of the world appeared. He pinched to zoom into the UK, and tapped on London.
‘Leave it out,’ said Verity, ‘it ain’t funny. You’re jus mental, innit.’
He zoomed in further, and dragged further west: The City. Westminster. Kensington.
‘Well, darling,’ said Verity, ‘have you and I reached an understanding?’
Malcolm hit Enter, and tapped the Hair button. He picked a mid brown from the muted spectrum, and Verity’s hair changed to match. He chose hazel eyes, a slightly shorter nose, a more rounded chin. When he’d finished, she was perfect. He tapped the large, friendly button marked She’s The One, turned the tablet off and slid it into his desk drawer.
* * *
The next day, Malcolm was on edge all evening. He waited until his wife, Janet, had gone to sleep, then slipped out of bed and hurried to his study. He locked the door and turned on the tablet.
The screen showed a small, bare studio apartment. A single bed, a table and chair in the foreground, a gas cooker. Verity was curled up on the bed, reading a book. She glanced up, and a smile spread across her face.
‘Malcolm!’ she said, jumping up and running over to sit at the table so that her face and arms filled the screen. ‘Darling, I’ve missed you. How was your day?’
Malcolm didn’t know how to begin. Sure, she was gorgeous. But what do you say to the girl of your dreams?
‘Er, not too good,’ he said, feeling a little foolish.
‘Oh, I’m so sorry,’ said Verity. ‘What happened?’
‘Mr Jeffreys gave me a hard time,’ he said.
‘You poor darling,’ said Verity. ‘Why don’t you tell me all about it.’
* * *
Malcolm’s days passed in a blur of anticipation. He couldn’t wait to get home, then the agonising drag through supper and reruns of Seinfeld, until his wife finally fell asleep.
‘Hi, Verity!’ he said happily, as he saw her sitting in her usual place on the bed.
Verity glanced over at him, but this time she didn’t jump to the table.
‘Hi, Malcolm,’ she said, and turned her attention back to her book.
‘Verity?’ said Malcolm. ‘Is something wrong?’
Verity put down her book and sighed.
‘No, Malcolm, nothing’s wrong. It’s just -’ she waved in an arc around the room. ‘This place. It’s so bare, I get so bored. And you’re out all day. I’d really like a TV.’
‘Oh, Verity,’ said Malcolm, ‘of course. Stupid of me. I should have thought. I’ll be right back.’ He tapped the Store button at the top of the screen.
The shopping experience was much like Amazon, except you could spin all the items around on screen, and you could customise their colour, size and shape. He visited the TV department, and chose a small 19 inch model. After a moment’s hesitation, he added the YouTube option, and tapped Buy Now.
Malcolm was surprised by the price. $299 seemed like a lot, for a virtual television that really didn’t exist. But it would make Verity happy, he reasoned, so it was worth every penny. He paid up cheerfully.
‘Oh darling,’ said Verity, ‘you’re so generous. I do love you.’
* * *
Over the next few weeks Malcolm bought Verity a new bed, an armchair and some colourful curtains. When she mentioned that she was feeling a little drab, he bought her a new dress. Then a pair of gold earrings to go with it. The stuff was expensive – almost as much as its real-world counterparts – but Malcolm didn’t mind. Verity was delighted, and that was all that mattered.
Verity really understood him, in a way that Janet never did.
* * *
‘Hello darling!’ said Verity happily. ‘I’m so pleased you’re home. Listen, I’ve seen this fabulous pair of shoes, they’re a real steal. They’re only -’
‘Er, Verity,’ said Malcolm. ‘Look. I really can’t afford all this. I’m heavily overdrawn as it is.’
‘Oh,’ said Verity. ‘It’s not the shoes, Malcolm. It’s not the stuff. It’s just that – well, you get home so late. I get so bored.’
‘I can’t help it, Verity, you know that. It’s Janet. I have to wait for her to go to sleep.’
‘Oh yes,’ said Verity. ‘Janet. It’s always bloody Janet. Look, Malcolm, I’m sorry, but tonight I have a headache. I’ll see you tomorrow. Give my love to bloody Janet.’ And, for the first time, Verity shut off the screen.
The next day Malcolm turned on the tablet to find Verity sitting at the table, waiting for him. She looked serious.
‘Look, Malcolm, I’ve been thinking. I don’t think this can go on.’
‘What?’ he spluttered. ‘What do you mean?’
‘The thing is,’ said Verity, ‘the thing is – I’ve found someone else. Sorry, Malcolm.’
‘But Verity –’ he began.
The screen went blank.
* * *
‘Bonsoir,’ said a husky French voice, ‘I am Madeleine. We will talk, yes?’
Malcolm hit the Next button.