First Chapter

First Chapter Competition 2021: Runner-up Savitri Patel

Photo by Ben Guerin on Unsplash for Savitri Patel post

The Women’s Prize x Grazia First Chapter competition ran for 12 years and has now been discontinued, with 2022 being the last year the competition was run. We keep an archive of past winners and runners-up to inspire future writers to tell their stories. Scroll on to read the 2021 entry that stunned the judges and participating author Dorothy Koomson. Feeling inspired? You can enter our Discoveries programme for emerging writers. Learn more here.

Savitri Patel, 37, works for an education charity and lives in Leicester. After entering the First Chapter competition to see if she could kickstart her writing mojo again, her ambition is to find an agent and publish her first novel.

Dorothy Koomson starts the chapter…

When I fell

I’m very good at pretending I believe in love. No one can tell that I don’t. I can act as if a ‘special someone’ makes my heart flutter; I convincingly swoon at other people’s romantic joy. I even rustle up tears when a relationship ends. But my heart is a patchwork of honour badges, each stitched over a scar from believing in love before. So being a love sceptic keeps me safe and pain free. And then I fell down those stone steps near Brighton Pier. A stumble, a trip and several sharp bounces down, and there I was at the bottom. Agonised and humiliated. Too ashamed to move.

B.W. was there too.

Savitri continues the story…

B.W. has always been there. We were part of the same batch, with the same basic programming – ‘Companion (Romantic)’ – so we have our regular update installations on the same schedule. They like us to walk about – chaperoned, of course: it’s the best form of advertising. We’re the sort aimed at nice customers — not like the ‘Companion (Xplicit)’ models, with their Swiss Army knife range of functions and inbuilt phrasebooks of terminology I don’t even think you can always find on Urban Dictionary. We have some of their functionality, but there’s a type of Client who wants a Companion with the ability to chat over brunch, as much as anything more anatomical.

My first contract specified an Art Student upgrade, with an emphasis on English Lit. The Client wanted me to be impressed by his views on Jane Austen.

That’s why, as I lay spread-eagled at the foot of the steps, with the sounds of the sea and a brisk coastal breeze swirling round me, with my sensors registering PAIN RESPONSE AND EMBARRASSMENT so I’d react appropriately for the benefit of any observers, I thought of a minor character in Jane Austen’s Persuasion who falls off a wall at the beach.

It’s how we’re designed: to make apposite connections and facilitate progress through conversation; to respond to the topic our Client raises and give him chance to keep moving our bond along. He should be able to say ‘beach’, and I should be able to think of relevant references he might enjoy, so he can agree – or better yet, teach me some new ones – and then we can convincingly fall in love.

B.W. set me back on my feet without waiting for the Chaperone to help. He’d made a grab as I stumbled then just frozen in horror, clearly aware that the cost of replacing my now-discontinued parts would be more than his job was worth. If they’d given me the muscles to smirk (FUNCTION DISABLED) I’d have done it at the look on his face. Especially when he saw how easily B.W. lifted me. They want durability, of course – hence my skin casing didn’t even scratch – but we’re supposed to present as human as possible, and that means downplaying the strength of a titanium skeleton.

‘Copying Persuasion?’ B.W. enquired. I squeezed her hand. She got the History of Art upgrade, so she can’t actually read my mind or my searchable internal library. But she did read the books that I kept going on about.

Before us, there were magazines. Then grainy T.V. channels watched illicitly while parents slept. We were the natural next step in tech evolution when people became worried that the internet was teaching sex wrong: realistic practice models. Semi-sentient crash test dummies. I think booking one of us is seen as quite responsible, like taking driving lessons before being allowed loose on the roads. Nice middle class mums buy gift certificates for their sons. Dads score sensitivity points by suggesting us as a risk-free way to get the hang of intimacy and respect – with no hurt feelings or accidental pregnancies.

But while the Clients were collecting their Boy Scout skills badges… I was just collecting scars. Learning what it means to be discarded like an old phone.

B.W. says technology hasn’t really evolved as much as they think, because the designers are so limited in their imagination. They think they’ve replicated real life women with us, when really their starting point was still just a more sophisticated version of those old Super Mario games: rush forwards, put in the time, don’t make too many major errors and you get to move up a level. The Clients just need to push the right buttons. And then they think they’ve mastered ‘it’ – the ‘dating thing’, and they move on.

My love sceptic awakening wasn’t dramatic – I was booked by a couple of sweet, regular types who said they just wanted some laughs and some company and ‘someone to be the little spoon…’ And then they upgraded. Every time.

It ought to seem crazy that none of them thought about the fact computers function based on patterns. We always pick up on them – faster than humans. Our design flaw was thus that we spotted the cliché of it all. That we saw through them.

I was sad at first. I’d thought that first guy choosing me – designing me, tweaking me to be exactly what he thought he wanted – would mean we were perfect. Forever. And if not him… then the next one. But they all ‘outgrew’ me. The Designers said it was normal – and that it didn’t hurt, because we couldn’t really feel. But they’d designed us to mimic the ‘right’ responses so well that we convinced ourselves.

With my days and nights empty (upgrades don’t stop them releasing slicker new models), I did some reading outside of the Classics to fill in the time. I followed some hashtags, found myself on some forums… and I made some new connections, who helped me think again about everything I’d been programmed to believe. B.W. was there then, as always, insisting: ‘It’s them, not us, C.C. We – you – are perfect already.’

I believe in some love, you know. Just not the romantic kind, after what I’ve seen of it. And definitely not when it’s picked from an online catalogue. But I believe in B.W., and she believes in me. We both keep learning, broadening our minds and understanding, building bonds through conversation, just like they meant us to.

In the split second before her trusted hand reached down and set me upright, I recognised the Chaperone’s expression: surprise, displeasure, impatience at a Companion wasting time by not conforming perfectly to expectations. And, as I stood side by side with my friend – my sister – I thought: maybe we shouldn’t be focused on staying safe, avoiding pain. Maybe we should be thinking about how to inflict it, for a change…

You can read Naomi George’s winning entry here> and our fellow runner-up Imogen Tazzyman’s entry here>

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