FICTION: Missing Data by Christopher Hall

“In statistics, missing data, or missing values, occur when no data value is stored for the variable in an observation.”

Wikipedia November 2017

It was always the same whenever he closed his eyes. He could never quite picture things as clearly as he wished. Seb tried to conjure up her image in his minds eye as the starting up of the jets rattled the carriage and unsettled his stomach. He pictured her walking through the Old Town, tripping over the flagstones in her converse and jeans, with a bag over her shoulder stuffed with books and a bottle of water to quench her thirst. Each time he tried to see the details of her face he couldn’t quite re-imagine it as a whole. He was grateful that he had some images of her downloaded to his phone. Never having met her in person he couldn’t rely on his memory to retrieve a good likeness. He worried about whether he was going to recognize her when they met. Of what he could piece together he pictured her brown eyes searching the sky for a sign of his plane. He brushed this thought away as romantic nonsense and opened his eyes. All thoughts turned back to home and his comfortable but sometimes very isolated life. He spent hours and sometimes days in the company of machines. It wasn’t long before they were cruising at altitude and he afforded himself a glance out of the window. Only now that he was airborne did he realise he’d made a big mistake in flying out. He should have worked harder to persuade her to come to England. He’d have paid. He offered to buy her tickets but she’d never travelled outside her country and was nervous about travelling so far away from home. Besides she said she wanted to show him some of the sights of her own country but he hated travel and as he looked out of the window at the rows of hedges and fields below, he wondered if this was the beginning of the end of their long distance relationship.

‘Can I get you anything to drink?’ asked the air steward. ‘Oh my – you look a little bit unwell. Are you ok?’

‘Fine….thank you. Got any beer?’

‘Yes.’ The air steward reached back and held up two tins.

Seb chose one, taking the plastic cup and chilled can of beer from the steward.

‘And your mother?’ the steward asked.

‘Mother?’ he said looking at the crumpled lady next to him who was plugged into the on-flight music. ‘That’s not…she’s not my mum.’

‘I’m sorry. You have a slight resemblance. Madam? Madam?’ he continued. The lady took out her earpieces.

‘You want something?’ she said.

‘Yes, would you like something to drink?’

‘What shall I have?’ she asked Seb.

‘I have no idea. What would you like?’ he replied.

‘Don’t worry. Forget it,’ she said and with a huff put the earpieces back in. The steward shrugged and shuffled to the next row of seats. Seb turned back to the woman to get another look. She was not very old and had the look of still being defiantly well-preserved. He would put her in her sixties at most. Only a few grey flecks to show in a head of short black hair. Her eyesight was being propped up by a pair of giant framed glasses which sat on an aquiline nose. She was leaning back in her seat, fully extended now that the plane had begun to cruise, with her bony fingers gripping the arm rests. She opened one of her eyes. Seb looked away. After a few seconds he looked back as if to take in the view. She sat up to get a good look at him.

‘You’re handsome for a man with red hair.’

‘Sorry?’

‘You look like a teacher. A professor. Are you?’

‘As a matter of fact I am.’

‘What do you teach?’

‘Data, specifically machine reading of data.’

‘Wise choice. We need more mathematicians and scientists. The problem with the world is we have too many people acting like circus performers and whores.’

‘Sorry?’

‘People thrusting forward without using their minds. You must have experienced that as a scientific man. It must be very frustrating for someone like you to be surrounded by people who are only interested in appearances.’

‘I’ve never really thought about it that way. . .’

‘No, well why would you? What brings you out here?’

‘A conference.’

‘Is that so? I worked with the university. Which conference?’

‘It’s a private one. Not so much a conference really. More of a symposium with some special guests and speakers.’

‘I see. Have you arranged for a female companion to meet you?’

‘No.’

‘Are you sure? Everyone else does. Pity you couldn’t have taken my daughter. She’s educated. A good companion. A good talker especially about art. I’ve just been to see her. Two more years in London she says and she’ll be back. Ha. Hum.’

‘What does she do?’

‘She’s a teacher like you. Would you like to see a picture?’

Seb thought he’d better not be rude and nodded as she turned on her phone and showed him a series of photographs of her daughter – some in a bikini, some in a flowing summer dress and several others with her mum in front of St Paul’s Cathedral, Big Ben, Buckingham Palace.

‘Well, that’s nice.’

‘Yes, that’s nice. As you English say, good memories.’

Seb leaned back in his chair but found it impossible to be still. He wondered if she had seen through him. It’s true he had arranged to meet someone at the airport and the conference had been a badly deployed lie. There was, in fact, no conference. He had attended conferences all over Europe and it was the most natural thing for him to say but the old woman hadn’t seemed convinced. She had tilted her nose in the air and nodded as if this was something that men had been in a habit of telling her when they wanted to conceal something. And offering to put him in touch with her daughter! That was surreal. What kind of relationship was she suggesting? A tourist guide or something more suited to the world of hedge fund managers and their escorts? He watched her intermittently for a few minutes, wondering how she could sleep so soundly. Perhaps she was slightly mad. When he felt sure she was asleep he plugged in his earphones and began looking through photos of Ana on his phone. He first encountered her through her YouTube channel where she ordered the most luxurious brands of underwear and modelled them for the camera. She had appeared in his browsing history a year after he had split up with his previous girlfriend, when he’d been looking at lingerie as a potential Christmas gift. ‘If you like that sort of thing you might like THIS’ screamed the auto-suggestion programme buried in his phone! And there she was, Ana, chatting away about lingerie before unwrapping her deliveries and swirling around her bedroom in stockings and suspenders. It was several weeks before he discovered that she also had a live stream. Someone helpfully posted the link beneath one of her videos. Very soon, he’d switched to watching her live in what looked like the bedroom of a luxury hotel. It was one way to pass the time especially after a bottle of wine. And soon it became the only way to pass the time. After a while he started messaging her with useful bits of data.

‘Is this the lady you are meeting?’ said a voice next to him. It was the old woman again.

He said nothing but shook his head.

‘Humph!’ she said, ‘She’s an artist. She looks like an artist or a cam girl.’

‘How can you tell? She is an artist of sorts.’

‘I’ve lived long enough to recognize people for what they are. You’ll see.’

Seb turned back to his phone and pretended to be reading something. She knows! How she knows I can’t imagine. Do old ladies watch vlogs? Do they even know what a cam girl is? But she knows! Am I making a horrible mistake here? The warnings of professional colleagues at the university came back to haunt him. ‘Don’t be taken for a fool‘, they said. ‘Can’t you see how improbable it is that a woman who performs for the whole world is really interested in you Seb?‘ His responses had always taken the same turn. Why would she invite him when it was easier not to reach out? Why open up about her life? The warnings about white knight syndrome had barely pricked his conscience. He was only thirty two, hardly a dirty old man and still making his way in his profession. He’d taken the necessary precautions. No promise of money. No gifts. No job in the UK had been promised at any stage. Nor had she ever hinted at or asked for these things. It was pure chemistry, a long distance relationship across borders and cultures, cutting through the noise of his everyday life. Their data just matched in a way that it didn’t with other women at home.

Several hours later they landed at the airport. He turned on his phone. No messages or emails from her. The old lady had been quiet for the rest of the flight. As he rose from his seat and quietly began to make his way out he turned back one last time. Her eyes snapped open just as he was removing his luggage from the overhead compartment.

‘Ah. We’re here’ she said, ‘could you help me with my luggage?’

Seb agreed and began looking for a suitcase in the compartment around him.

‘It’s in the hold. Too heavy for someone like me. I find it so difficult to lift. Don’t worry. I will make it worth your while.’

He watched her slowly raise herself out of her seat, gripping the headrests of the seats in front. For someone so thin she could make the cramped space in economy class feel like a lunar space capsule. She inched her way towards the aisle. He held out a hand to help her.

‘Thank you,’ she said and gripped his fingers to steady herself, her hand shaking slightly in his, ‘Sorry if I’m getting in your way.’

‘No problem.’

He helped her into the aisle, blocking any of their fellow passengers who might be tempted to barge past. They all hung back, looking ahead sullenly or down at their phones. When she was out he began to shuffle slowly out of the aircraft, checking his phone for messages. Nothing. He sent a quick message.

Just landed J xxx

Outside the aircraft it was a bright but crisp autumn day, a little less than ten degrees and Seb felt the Eastern chill immediately as soon as he was on the runway. The lady was keeping pace with him. She was much nimbler on her feet that she had been in the cabin.

‘Look! Just ahead,’ she said poking him the ribcage.

She pointed to two women who were schlepping their way towards the terminal, dripping with gold and leather.

‘Chanel, Gucci, Versace. You can guess what they’ve been up to.’

He tried to ignore her but she wouldn’t shut up.

‘International playthings. Looks like they’ve made some money. I wonder if your girl is here? Have you heard from her?’

‘Not yet.’

‘Oh, she’s probably on her way.’

In his mind’s eye he could picture her waiting for him in the Arrivals Hall. Would she see him first? As soon as they reached a bathroom he excused himself to check his phone. In the privacy of a cubicle he checked that she wasn’t currently streaming herself. She wasn’t. Had she forgotten that today was the day of his arrival?

Ping. A message.

Sorry babe xxx. Just woke up. Will be ready in 2 hours. Take a taxi to the centre?

Outside the toilets the old woman was waiting for him.

‘Is anyone coming to pick you up?’

‘No.’

‘Ah. What a pity. When we get back to my apartment could you help me get the luggage up the stairs? I live on the tenth floor. I could ask a friend but I don’t have anyone. They’re not around anymore. Lots of the tenants are sleeping at this time as they work nights.’

‘Where do you live?’

‘In the centre. Close to the Old Town. I’ll take you there.’

He hadn’t agreed to anything let alone found out what was going to make this trip worth his while but he felt obliged to help. They joined a swarm of fellow passengers at the baggage carousels and Seb went to fetch a trolley for the old woman’s bag. When he returned she was dipping into a bag of sweets. She offered him one. Was this to be his reward?

‘No thanks,’ he said.

She made that same nodding motion with her head as if she expected as much. They waited. For Seb it seemed to take an age before the carousel finally chugged into motion. He checked his phone. It had only been ten minutes. The old lady tapped him on the shoulder. He moved forward to prepare himself to take one of the cases that had begun to emerge from the small covered doorways.

‘Did she say she was running late?’

‘EH?’

‘Did she say she was running late?’

‘Who?’

‘The girl. The girl you are meeting?’

‘Who said anything about that?’

‘Be careful if she says she’s bringing her mother.’

‘What colour is your bag?’

‘Black’

‘Any other description that might help me?’

‘It’s big, black and it has a yellow ribbon.’

‘Be careful.’

‘I will.’

‘Aha. There! There’s my case!’

Seb rushed forward and eased his body in between the assembled passengers to get a closer look. The case was about the size of a small mini-bus minus the wheels. He just about managed to heave it onto the trolley whilst knocking and barging into the people around him who shook their heads.

‘We can get a taxi this way!’ she ordered.

In the car he checked his phone again and began typing

On my way now. Sharing a taxi to the centre. Shall I meet you at the hotel?

Are you staying at a hotel? Which one?’ asked the lady.

‘The Old Hospital’

‘Ah yes, the Old Hospital. That’s where they used to do all the interrogations in the Communist days. Are you meeting her there?’

‘You’re going to tell me it’s a bad idea aren’t you?’

‘Mmmm. It has bad memories for women. The doctors were notorious for abusing the women that went there.’

‘Ahhhh. OK. So where do you suggest?’

PING! He had another message.

Meet me at the Workers’ Palace. Two hours x

‘Workers’ Palace?’ he said out loud.

‘That’s where they meet. Workers’ Palace. Little more than a whore house these days.’

Seb remained silent for the rest of the journey. He hadn’t expected it to be like this. As they cruised down the main highway into the city they crossed a bridge and he saw for the first time how wide the river was between one side of the city and the other. It had protected the city from invaders several times over the centuries. Was that what he was now? An invader? He checked himself. How foolish. How ridiculous to even make that analogy. Two people had connected over the internet over a desire to reach beyond the limitations of their surroundings. He checked his phone again. Did she mean two hours from now or from when he touched down? His stomach began to churn and he couldn’t get comfortable.

As they pulled into the apartment complex, the old woman tipped the driver and ushered him round to the back of the car to remove her suitcase. As Seb got out the driver looked him up and down and gave him a knowing smirk. The old woman patted him on the back and he was off.

‘I have something for you if you can help me get up the stairs with this,’ she said turning to Seb.

‘What’s in the case?’

‘Just my things.’

‘It’s heavy. It feels as though you’ve got the whole world locked inside it.’

She smiled and held open the door to the apartment block. Inside it was light and functional with a stack of postage boxes on one side and even a sofa and table for waiting visitors or guests. Seb dragged the case after the old lady and began to follow her to the stairs when suddenly she noticed someone emerging from one of the lifts in the lobby.

‘The lifts are working again. Come.’

They rode to the tenth floor and emerged onto a landing.

‘I’m just at the end,’ she said.

He followed her down a narrow corridor. She turned round and looked at him for a moment.

‘Half of these people are new. I’ve lived her for forty years. I hardly know any of my neighbours now. This one here has been a friend of mine for all that time but she doesn’t get out much now. This way. I’m the last one here on the right.’

She opened the door and Seb dragged himself in but was startled by what he found. The apartment was painted white and covered in all kinds of artistic items from primitive looking tribal masks to oil paintings of nudes. She pulled open a pair of beige coloured curtains. Sunlight burst into the apartment and gave Seb an immediate impression of the size of the city with its vast river swirling through it. Tall buildings and landmarks rose from the packed squares and lines of buildings.

‘Can you see the Workers’ Palace from here?’

‘Yes, there. Do you see? It’s not that big.’

‘I can’t really tell. That one? It’s not very palatial.’

The old lady took off her coat and beckoned Seb to do the same.

‘Sit down and I’ll make you a drink. Coffee?’

Seb nodded and sat down on one of the chairs by the window to admire the view.

‘How long can you stay?’ she asked as she came back with a tray and two cups of coffee.

‘Not long I’m afraid. I’ll have a coffee and then I’ll have to go.’

‘Do you think she will be waiting for you?’

‘Well, I expect so. I hope so.’

‘Tell me how would a machine find the answer to that question?

‘Pardon?’

‘How would a machine read this situation between you and the girl?’

‘It would gather the available data.’

‘And if it didn’t have all the available data?’

‘It’s impossible to have less than all the available data. No-one has more than what’s available apart from what’s not yet known or discovered. But how much do you really need when there is more stuff online than any researchers could ever obtain in hundreds of lifetimes. It would then make guesses, as many as it could, looking at all the potential outcomes then compare that with known and predictable behaviours.’

‘Unlike an artist. An artist would go with an intuition and then perhaps do it anyway even if there were no guarantees. An artist’s life is all about experiencing, breathing, living. Do you think a machine could learn to be an artist?’

‘Yes, it could. If it ever had a concept of beauty. I suspect it would be something copied from human creativity. Perhaps the same but with enhancements, refinements of colour and style but essentially copies. Art forgeries of sorts.’

‘That’s what I think. A forger of sorts.’

‘You travel a lot by the looks of things,’ said Seb pointing out the exotic paintings and masks on the walls.

He felt a buzz in his jacket pocket and removed his phone.

Would you mind if I bring my mother? Xxxx

As he looked up he saw the old lady squinting at him and waiting for him to finish. Had she ever stood in as someone’s mother on a first date at the Workers’ Palace?

‘Would you like to see what I’ve got in my case? Come with me to the spare room. Could you bring it for me?’

He heaved the damn thing one last time into her spare room and placed it on the bed where she had indicated. The room was small and cosy, just like one that he used to stay in whenever he visited his grandma in Yorkshire. Plump pillows adorned a metal framed bed covered with thick woollen blankets.

‘I have something for you. Take it as a gift from me for all your help.’

She carefully unzipped the case to reveal a heap of clothes, books, boots and coats and all kinds of things which sprang out as she rummaged around for something.

‘It’s here somewhere. It must be. Here.’

She pulled out an envelope with a gold seal.

‘This is for you. Take it. Here.’

Seb wasn’t sure what to make of it. He wondered if she might be about to tip him for his services. With a certain amount of dread he slid his thumb underneath the seal but handed it back. It felt like it might be some money and he really didn’t want the lady to pay him.

‘It’s for you,’ she insisted, ‘Go on.’

Reluctantly Seb opened the envelope and pulled out a pair of tickets for what looked like an art exhibition. He looked up at some of the pictures that adorned the walls of her apartment and then back at the tickets. His phone began to vibrate, insisting that he take it out of his pocket.

‘Thank you. I don’t know what to say. I’d love to stay but it looks as though I’ve got to go. It’s been a long, long day. I can’t keep her waiting.’

‘No, no, you mustn’t. Would you do me a small favour?’ she said.

‘Yes…Ms….. I don’t know your name,’ he said reading the ticket.

‘Niculescu. There are two tickets only. One of them is for you. Make sure you use the other one.’

‘Yes, I will. I’ll certainly do that. It was a pleasure. Anyway I must go. Bye.’

He found his own way out and gently shut the door behind him. She waited for a minute and then slipped out of her clothes. She paced around the empty flat naked while running a bath and listening to a piano concerto on the radio. When the water was exactly the right temperature she got in and sunk her body deep into the water until it was touching her chin. She had journeyed a long way from the reception in London and from her first exhibition at the Workers’ Palace many years ago. From her bathroom she could just about see one of her male nudes on the walls, a reminder of a less inhibited time.

glasses

Christopher Hall

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Christopher Hall was born in Lancashire, England in 1972 and studied history at the University of York where he gained a first. He self-published his first novel The Laurel Harvest in 2010 and is currently seeking representation for his second which is a story about a man who submits to be experimented on by an Artificial Intelligence researcher as a cure for loneliness. He has a keen interest in reading philosophical and historical works of fiction.

If you enjoyed ‘Missing Data’ leave a comment and let Christopher know.

You can find Christopher on Twitter

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