|Socrates Jones was a dying breed. Cwmddu was filling-up these days with accountants and estate agents, who commuted daily into Newport, people who worked in the financial sector and had hands that shone pristine white.
Lying back on the sun-lounger, strategically placed to catch the last of the evening sun, Socrates gazed across an uncut lawn to the valley stretching like a lazy black cat below. His hemlock, in the modern form of small white tablets, was within arm's reach on the round, plastic patio table. Yet, for some reason, Socrates did not pick up the yellow bottle, nor unscrew the new-fangled top that only his grandchildren could comprehend. Rather, he suffered the pain and drank in the sensations his heightened awareness offered him.
The sweet smell of sin from the roses that climbed over the garden wall and burst into a riot of reds and yellows against the blue backdrop of sky, the taste of sweat that sprang from his forehead and trickled down his face to find the corner of-his mouth, the sound of the baby active in its playpen in next door's garden, Gurgling in the sunshine and within earshot of its doting mother, and the feel of the grass beneath his bare feet. He longed to be part of it all, not to be old and set apart from the world of his observations. To be somehow one with the whole big ball of sensations that he felt he could, at that moment, crumple in his heavy hands and toss into the wide, waiting sky. For that reason alone, the hemlock remained in its bottle. Untouched.
His snowy white hair was thinning now. Gone were the strong curls that dared even comb and water. Gone too was the energy that leapt from his eyes. Oh, it was still there at moments. Flashing from the shade and burning with a quick intensity that devoured itself. No longer could he sustain enthusiasm. It seemed pointless, a crime somehow against the unity of the moment, a last selfish act against the harmony. Against the truth that he knew with certainty within the very tissue of his being, the truth that he knew but could never express. It was as if the words of his language conspired against him and formed their own, predetermined meaning. Leading him away from the certainty that he felt when he merely accepted and did not try to impose an order onto the world.
The small plastic robot lay at his feet. "To keep you company Granch", the yellow haired bundle of energy had told him. Presenting him with the black, square toy with the large red eyes that lit with fire as it walked uncertainly along the garden path. Socrates thought fondly of his grandson. Growing out of clothes before his mother could wash them. Sprouting towards the stars and the top of next-door's bean canes. Still young enough to be certain that what he wanted he would get. And, what he wanted most was his Grandfather still around to tease him and look in that mock-serious way whenever his mother came running around with his latest piece of mischief.
Socrates would look at her from under the golden frames of his bifocals, like a doctor or solicitor, and weigh her up. Then out would come some story from her childhood, told so serious that it had to make you laugh. Yes, Grandfathers had their uses after all.
Socrates bent down and switched the robot on. For a moment it did nothing. Hovering in indecision, like a human. Then its programme took over and its great fiery eyes burned futile against the sunlight and its unsteady legs jerked forward as stiff as an arthritic pensioner.
"We all march", Socrates thought, "to our own programmes, some slow and ponderous, some quick and fast moving. But all controlled the same. Saving or burning out our batteries, what did it matter? What choice had we?"
The robot stepped forward. Brushing flowers it could not smell. Carving its course through a world that it could not know, a world that, although it surrounded it, lay just beyond its reach.
Socrates felt a twinge of pity. Along with the sorrow came a deeper realisation that he too was excluded. They were alike, him and the robot, both blundering through a world that they could never know, could never comprehend. In a sudden movement of empathy he reached forward and picked the robot up. Holding it close to him as a child would hold a kitten. The moment was heavy with meaning, the red of the giant eyes flashing against the cotton of his shirt like blood.
Socrates dozed as he half watched the sun, now low in the sky, glance off the cars that wound snakelike up Black Rock Pitch. Climbing the steep incline with machine efficiency. Here he and Gwen had strolled in the summertime of their youth and lay entwined amid the heather and the Wimberries. So sweet those berries had tasted then. Stolen from the mountains and heavy with guilt. "Where are you now, Gwen? Where are those days we treated so carelessly and spent like spare change in our pockets?"
Socrates felt the sorrow deepen, as it always did, after a memory of past happiness flitted through his mind. It was the price he had to pay, the price we all have to pay, for the gift of remembrance, for the knowledge of what we were as well as of what we are. Perhaps God had been right to leave that spoiled apple beyond man's reach.
Tiredness crept like a shadow over him. He placed the robot onto the garden path, the mechanism hummed into life as the plastic legs shuffled it forward along the concrete. Weeds broke the hard surface after their long, dark journey in search of the sun. The occasional Dandelion shook its golden mane. Unheeding the robot marched forward, its frenzied eyes flashing crimson in the fading daylight.
Socrates waited, half way between sleep and consciousness. Caught between the pain of reality and peace. In the distance, the robot whirred and continued its journey towards the timber fence at the garden's edge. Unaware of the distance it had travelled from the now resting man. Unaware of its existence, unaware of the low charge left in its batteries, walking slowly toward towards the fence where it would halt and glow red in the long chill evening to come.
Unaware of pain or of beauty, a creation left free to roam a world that it did not seek to comprehend, a world without meaning, its giant eyes flashing as programmed by its intricate circuits, its legs shuffling in imprecise motion towards its journey's end.
Socrates rested, the last of the sun gentle on his face. Thoughts of peace, and of Gwen, warm on his mind.