The Bell family lived in the suburbs, in a house built of glass and steel, designed by Mr. Bell. Their neighbors in Wynston Avenue, who also lived in glass houses, had planted tall dense hedges to shield them from view. Mr. and Mrs. Bell said what was the point of a beautiful house if no one else could enjoy it, and built themselves a low brick wall. However, they liked their privacy as much as anyone, and it was fortunate that the house was secluded by being set on a bend in the road. There was also a huge lime tree in the front garden that veiled one side of the building.
The center of the house was an atrium, paved with brick and full of plants and flowers. A wide hallway opening onto it connected the ground-floor rooms. There was a half-landing with an office, exercise room and study area; bedrooms and bathrooms were on the top floor. The land at the back was divided into grass, a vegetable garden and a slightly wild overgrown patch at the far end.
As dawn approached, the birds in the lime tree began their chorus. A gray cat slinked across the lawn and over the brick wall. Seconds later the house swept a sensor around the garden for the hundredth time that night to check for intruders. It took the outside temperature and barometric pressure. Today was going to be a mild day with the possibility of a light shower before the evening.
A noise downstairs alerted the house that someone was up. It turned on its electronic eye in the kitchen and saw that the butler was at work. He was chopping something on a large wooden board and talking to the kettle.
Room by room, the house checked its occupants. Fleur Bell was buried so deeply in the duvet that it was impossible to tell which way up she was. The house zoomed in somewhere about her middle to reassure itself that she was still breathing. Satisfied that the duvet was gently rising and falling, the house turned its eye to the bedroom next door. Fleur's younger brother, Gavin Bell, was sprawled across the bed, the covers thrown off as if he had been wrestling in his sleep. Normal, concluded the house promptly, with barely a glance at him.
Charlotte Bell, lying in a cot in the nursery, was twitching in her sleep. No cause for alarm there. In the main bedroom Mr. and Mrs. Bell looked comfortable enough, but Mr.
Bell was muttering to himself and the house considered that he might have a fever. It looked for other symptoms, found none, and decided that he was nearing the end of a dream cycle.
The hours passed and the house grew busier--waking everyone up and setting the temperature for showers and baths. It checked the gobetween for news that might interest the Bells, adjusted roof panels to create more heat and raised the blinds on the day ahead.
Gavin was the first to come downstairs. He was in a bad mood, though he didn't know why. It felt as if his body had been given a good shake and parts of him had fallen back into the wrong place. He had been looking forward to today. After home study he was going to the learning center for a game of liveball. That was the good bit. On the other hand, he was sure he had instructed the house to wake him with his favorite music; instead, a shrill voice had screeched "Wakey! Wakey!" in his ear. He hadn't had breakfast yet, and he had a nagging feeling that his mum and dad were going to have one of their Discussions. He jumped the final steps and burst into the dining room, his shirt half undone and one of his socks twisted.
"Where is everyone?"
"Your mother is in the shower and your father is changing Charlotte's nappy," replied the house in a soothing, feminine voice. "Your sister is--"
"All right," snapped Gavin. "I didn't really expect an answer. It was a rit . . . ret . . ."
"Rhetorical question?" prompted the house.
"Yes, I know." Gavin sat down to adjust his sock. "Anyway, you're not supposed to be on in here. You know Mum doesn't like machines in the dining room."
"I am not a machine," corrected the house.
"Yes you are, drybrain. You just don't have a body." He looked up. "Go on then, turn yourself off."
There was a long pause before the green light beside the door began to flicker, and an even longer pause before it went out. Gavin frowned. He knew that machines were not supposed to have personalities, apart from the one people might choose for them. But if anyone had asked him, he would have said that the house was stubborn and sulky.
His father came into the room carrying the baby and placed her in the high chair. Gavin kissed Charlotte on the forehead. Normally, he didn't do a lot of kissing, but his little sister was an exception. Charlotte craned her neck to look at him and chuckled, revealing a dimple and a row of tiny white teeth.
"Morning," said Mr. Bell. He was wearing a high-necked jacket and slim-legged trousers. A narrow piece of cloth poked up behind the collar of the jacket.
"Morning, Dad. You look interesting."
"Interesting?" said Mr. Bell.
Gavin eyed his father up and down. "Well, like something out of the twentieth century. All you need is a watch on your wrist instead of a jinn, and a top hat."
"Top hats are Victorian, I think you'll find. I've a very important meeting today and I think I look very smart."
Gavin's dad hardly ever dressed up. He worked with a lot of other architects who also looked most of the time as if they had just got out of bed.
"I'm meeting the top people at LifeCorp," he continued. "We're going to build them a new factory."
"Euphoric, Dad! Congratulations. But how come they've chosen you? I don't remember you mentioning it."
Mr. Bell looked guilty. He tied a bib around Charlotte's neck and sat down beside her. "I didn't," he admitted. "They held a competition to choose the architects last summer. We were asked not to tell anyone but since we've won we can hardly keep it a secret anymore. Now, I wonder what's for breakfast?"
Gavin had a sneaking feeling his father was changing the subject. They examined the dining table. "Bowls and side plates," mused Mr. Bell. "Well, that doesn't look too ominous."
The door slid open and Mrs. Bell and Fleur entered. They too stared at the table.
"Cereal and toast. That's OK," said Fleur with relief.
His mum kissed Gavin. "Morning," she murmured. "Did you sleep well?"
He wondered whether to tell her about the house screeching in his ear and decided not to. It would be just like her to go back to alarm clocks, or to volunteer to wake him herself. At least with the house he could tell it to let him snooze for ten minutes.
They joined Mr. Bell at the table.
"Dad's going to build a new factory for LifeCorp," Gavin told his sister.
"Really?" said Fleur. "Whereabouts?"
"Don't get excited," their father said. "It's on the edge of the city. I was hoping it might be somewhere exotic like Italy or Tanzania so I'd be allowed to travel."
The door opened and the butler rolled into the room, to an accompaniment of squeaks and whirrs.
"Good evening," he said in a gravelly voice.
Fleur and Gavin exchanged looks of alarm.
"Actually, Grumps . . . ," began Mr. Bell.
A ring indicated that the food lift had arrived. Mr. Bell left his sentence unfinished. The butler creaked his way toward the lift and took out a large tureen.
"Soup is served," he announced, setting down the tureen in the center of the table.
"Soup!" echoed Fleur. "For breakf--?"
"Shhh," said her mum. "You'll hurt his feelings. Thank you, Grumps."
"Tomato soup," intoned the butler. He lifted the lid. Steam wafted up and the unmistakable smell of cooked tomatoes filled the room.
The family stared in silence at the tureen. Grumps waited patiently, the lid in his hand.
"Perhaps a ladle?" said Mrs. Bell at last. "And some cereal and a yogurt for Charlotte."
"I forgot. I am most sorry." The butler replaced the lid and trundled out of the door. They heard him squeaking down the hallway.
From the Hardcover edition.