‘Why do we need a new time machine?’ Ellie demanded one slow Saturday evening in May. ‘What about a new servitor – why can’t we have a domestic robot that actually does what it’s supposed to?’
This was familiar territory to both of us - Ellie was winding up for yet another argument about money. Money is our problem – or one of our problems anyway. Spending the stuff is a blessed escape for both of us but unfortunately we need to escape in different ways – and for different reasons.
Ellie wanted a new servitor and I wanted a new time machine, so there we were again arguing about money and how best to spend the stuff. Or at least Ellie was. I’m more into evasion. The indirect approach – that’s me.
‘What’s wrong with the servitor?’ I knew this was a feeble evasion, but I was trying hard not to notice how the whole house smelled of fish. The fishy smell and a faint bluish haze of scorched grease meant our servitor was cooking the evening meal.
Unfortunately our new servitor wasn’t a great cook. It wasn’t too hot at any of the other things domestic robots are supposed to do either, but I was angling for a new time machine – not another boring servitor. Time machines are one of my ways of escaping life’s humdrum routines, but our TimeTrippa turned out to be a crappy bore from the day we bought it.
‘You know perfectly well what’s wrong with the servitor.’ Ellie’s voice had that particular edge to it, a spiky gritty sound like glass being crushed to powder under a heavy boot.
‘I don’t –‘
‘We are the only people I know who have to make do with a servitor as downmarket as that heap of junk you bought through that special offer in your so-called ‘webmag’.
‘It was really cheap though.’ And yes – she did manage to put verbal quote marks around ‘webmag’.
‘It was only cheap because you had to send off about a million tokens’.
‘We're not made of money – the webmag tokens were a really good deal. Couldn’t go wrong.’ Oh shit, why do I say these things?
‘Couldn’t go wrong? Well I don’t need to go into details do I? Even you know how stupid you are at times. So I really don’t see why we have to make do with a cheap unbranded servitor from your dodgy webmag.’
‘It wasn’t all that cheap what with scraping together all those tokens…’ Oops – done it again.
‘It told my mother to sod off the last time she called round. Proper servitors don’t tell house guests to sod off. Proper servitors open the front door and welcome guests politely with a nice compliment and a friendly word about the weather. But these domestic basics seem to be beyond that tin-head you paid good money for. Not to mention a shed load of tokens.’
‘It made a mistake – it thought your mother was selling something so it tried to help us by getting rid of her. It just needs adjusting in some way. Once I’ve translated the instructions -’
‘...and you also told me our brand new servitor was going to be the electronic equivalent of a three star Michelin chef.’
I held up my hands to stem the gathering storm of Ellie's tirade. How did I ever imagine that blue eyes and curly blonde hair meant she had a soft centre? ‘Okay – let’s just agree the servitor must have been rude to your mother because of some minor setup issue I can easily sort out. So let’s also agree that I'm going to get it fixed. Okay? New servitors always have teething problems.’
‘Did teething problems make it tell the Vicar we'd joined the Moondreamers Sexual Revolution? And what about that little teething problem when stood in the middle of the road ironing Mr Carver's Koi carp? He was relying on us to look after those carp while he was away on holiday.’
‘That was a schedule mix-up -’
‘Because you told it to feed the carp and you also told it you’d like fish for supper, didn’t you?’
‘All I did was –‘
‘Possibly...’ I just knew she’d bring up the Koi carp incident. I just bloody knew it. In fact I'd known Ellie was going to be short on enthusiasm as soon as I brought up the idea of a new time machine.
The time machine idea had popped into my mind when I found out how much more advanced they now were than our old TimeTrippa. I’d been into work for a few hours and for some reason, on my way back home, I'd nipped into the High Street showroom where they had the new Chronos xfi on display. I’d seen the ads of course, but never seen one for real, so I decided there was no harm in surveying the market.
Wow! That Chronos xfi was one beautiful machine - state of the art time travel – light years ahead of our ancient TimeTrippa. How could I explain these things to Ellie though? It just didn't seem to bother her that the TimeTrippa was the crappiest time machine around.
‘Now your latest fad is a new time machine,’ Ellie ground on. ‘It's not as if we ever use the TimeTrippa – you only bought it to leer at Henry the Eighth's wives.’
‘Not true,’ I protested. I was about to list our many other cultural uses of the TimeTrippa, but Ellie butted in as she so often does when I'm putting a good argument together.
‘And what does xfi mean?’
‘The letters xfi in this Chronos thing’s name - what do they mean?’
‘It's something to do with x-dimensional fibrillation,’ I replied vaguely. Actually I did know the answer because it was explained in the ads. I just couldn't quite bring it to mind.
‘We don’t need a new time machine and that servitor will never be any good George. Why couldn't you buy a proper one like an i-Jeeves instead of a cheap unbranded webmag model nobody ever heard of?’
‘There's nothing wrong with our servitor - it just has a few bugs to iron - sort out.’
‘A few bugs? Look George, I want an i-Jeeves servitor to do proper housekeeping. I don’t need a bum servitor which irons a neighbour's pet fish in public. Especially the pet fish of a nice neighbour like Mr Carver.
‘They were only fish –‘
Those Koi carp meant a lot to Mr Carver. And why did our servitor start a fight with his servitor when it came round to comfort him about the Koi carp. That’s supposed to be impossible.’
‘Servitors are not supposed to pick fights, George. It’s illegal or something. It must be.’
Well things went downhill from there. Ellie also decided to bring up the wonky 3-D control on our old TV set, how she couldn't afford for it to go on the blink now that her favourite soap opera was screened 24/7 and the main character was due to be resurrected by cloning him from DNA traces found in his beer mug.
‘...So don’t talk to me about a new time machine,’ Ellie yelled after working herself up her scale of grievances. She was angry enough for two people by then but I thought she was going to explode when our servitor opened the door to announce supper.
‘Seared fish for supper guys – mmm yummy.’ Ellie just glared at the servitor for a few seconds, gave a kind of demented shriek and flew out of the room, barging the innocent servitor against the door.
I just shrugged my shoulders and followed the servitor into the dining room. Actually I was a bit suspicious of the fish but the servitor insisted it was plaice and definitely not ironed carp.
Of course I wasn’t going to allow a spot of domestic bother put me off a test run in the new Chronos. I'd told the sales guy I was really interested and as the following day was Saturday I’d soon be back in that showroom.
‘Mr Harbottle - nice to see you again sir. Come to try out the new Chronos?’
‘Why not? I was passing anyway,’ I replied casually. The sales guy had remembered my name from the previous visit - I liked that.
‘Anywhen you'd like to go Mr Harbottle? We can go as far back as you like - this model's as quick as a blink. I believe you said you have a TimeTrippa at present?’
‘Never got round to replacing it.’ I shrugged as if time machines weren't that high up my list of priorities.
‘Only ten standard TimeStops on the TimeTrippa aren't there?’
‘Yes – and six of those are Henry the eighth’s wives,’ I replied. ‘Plus Marston Moor, the Battle of Hastings, the signing of Magna Carta and a two second glimpse of Shakespeare picking his nose. The battle of Hastings wasn't where the history books said so we have to take binoculars to see any action.’
‘We have the battle of Hastings properly located in the Chronos xfi Mr Harbottle. What about Marston Moor?’ The salesman sniggered.
‘The battlefield latrine business you mean? Well it’s better than nothing - almost.’
‘Of course - with a limited range of TimeStops you get the same result every time. Once you’ve seen history from a single angle you've seen it. The Chronos xfi has two hundred TimeStops as standard and each TimeStop has up to six TimeViews carefully chosen to get you right into the action. Plus you can add as many TimeStops as you wish just by purchasing HistoriPaks from our vast Living History Catalogue.
Two hundred TimeStops and six TimeViews for each one! In the TimeTrippa, you only see Catherine Howard over the top of a wall at Hampton Court and as for Anne of Cleves – well she looks like a man to me.
The Chronos xfi was sleek and gleaming, a silver projectile in the middle of the showroom. It was their demonstrator model, so naturally it was top of the range with that factory fresh feel all over it. The salesman held open the door and I stepped inside while he took one of the passenger seats. Inside there was a built-in cocktail cabinet and a Kool-Snax module for time-travelling picnics. The TimeTrippa just has a plastic clip to hold your Thermos flask.
‘Anywhen you like Mr Harbottle - she's all yours.’
I settled myself into the Plushtex upholstery, inhaled the sweet, succulent tang of pure newness then flicked on the control screen. It lit up with dozens of colour-coded TimeStops, screen after screen of them, every historical event I ever heard of and some I hadn't. Mostly stuff I hadn't heard of actually. What the hell was Beatlemania?
‘Spoiled for choice, Mr Harbottle?’ The salesman grinned.
‘Just looking over my favourite historical periods,’ I lied as I selected a TimeStop at random and the showroom vanished in a shimmer of shifting temporal dimensions...
‘It's murky out there Mr Harbottle - which TimeStop did you select?’ The salesman peered at swirling grey fog outside the window of the Chronos. ‘Let’s try another View. You see how easy it is to change Views... although they all seem to be rather similar.’
He touched the View pad repeatedly, but all we saw was more and more fog - thick as smoke. That fog was pretty creepy too, even though it's impossible to have any physical contact with the past. You just can't go outside a time machine and the past can’t get at you - it's impossible. Something technical to do with the great time paradox – or so the ads say. The fog still gave me the shivers though. I glanced at the control screen.
‘Jack the Ripper’s London?’ We both spoke at once. Neither of us expected such an interesting TimeStop to be standard kit in the Chronos xfi.
Wow – this is even better than I hoped. I began to think about finance and bank loans as we peered outside to see if anything was happening. Suddenly a shadow stirred the gloom and something gleamed and flashed and I forgot about bank loans and the salesman made a kind of gurgling sound...
‘I'm so sorry Mr Harbottle. It must have been the fish - our servitor gave us fish last night.’ The salesman dabbed at his cheap salesman’s trousers with a tissue. He'd been a little sick as soon as we saw what Jack the Ripper was up to in that foggy alley.
I felt sick too but I'd had the presence of mind to avert my gaze and stab my finger at another TimeStop. The factory fresh aroma of the Plushtex wasn’t so noticeable now. We took a look at the TimeStop I'd selected at random to get us away from Jack the Ripper's London.
‘Some kind of amphitheatre - Roman perhaps - how interesting.’ The salesman was pale but he managed to pick up the threads of his patter now the Chronos had wafted us somewhen else safely away from the foggy horrors of nineteenth century London. After all, he still had a Chronos xfi to sell.
Outside there were tiers of stone seats arranged in a huge circle, all packed with people wearing what looked like loose cloaks. Togas perhaps? I could tell the sun was fierce out there. The sky was like a blue dome - a great blue lid sealing in the heat. Tawny shapes moved in the middle distance.
‘Aren’t those lions Mr Harbottle? How fascinating. You don’t get genuine historical lions with your TimeTrippa.’ The salesman pointed through the haze shimmering over the sandy floor of the amphitheatre. He was right - there were several lions padding majestically out of a large doorway into the arena.
‘Who are those people - do they know about the lions?’ The salesman shifted his hand about ninety degrees, nearly dislocating my nose as he pointed to another large doorway on the opposite side.
People in ragged tunics were being prodded into the arena. The people at the wrong end of the prodding didn’t seem keen on the idea. I peered at the TimeStop screen. I thought I’d selected the World Cup football final between England and Germany in 1966, so why the lions?
‘Oh dear those lions have seen the people. It doesn’t look good for them.’ At that point the salesman grabbed at another tissue and again I had the presence of mind to stab my finger at another TimeStop...
‘I'm so sorry Mr Harbottle - I really am. I'm sure the Roman Games TimeStop is really very educational - I just wasn't expecting... Never mind, where are we now?’
‘I just selected a TimeStop at random.’ I replied. I gazed round with interest.’
The salesman took a look too then glanced at the screen. ‘Oh no, I don’t think so Mr Harbottle. Something is very wrong here.’
‘Hang on for a few minutes.’ I put my hand over the screen to stop him from flipping us somewhen else.
‘For some reason this vehicle obviously isn't equipped with the manufacturer’s standard HistoriPak Mr Harbottle. I can't apologise enough but we have to leave.’
‘Another minute.’ I kept my hand over the View screen, but that blasted salesman had other ideas.
‘I'm sorry Mr Harbottle.’ He punched the big red Quick-Return button and the scene outside the Chronos xfi changed abruptly to the dealer's High Street showroom. ‘I really am sorry Mr Harbottle,’ the salesman said again as we clambered out of the Chronos.
I shrugged. ‘It was interesting while it lasted.’
‘Somebody must have left a hard-core HistoriPak in our demonstrator - I'll have strong words about it. I can assure you we're not into hard-core history here at Chronos.’
‘I told you I don't mind.’
‘But Sodom and Gomorrah Mr Harbottle?’
‘I just wondered which it was - Sodom or Gomorrah – historical curiosity you know.’
‘Yes - well we have a brand new servitor to valet all our demonstrators Mr Harbottle, but it can behave rather strangely. I don't know how, but it must have set the Chronos xfi up with some kind of hard-core HistoriPak instead of the standard product.’
‘Was your servitor one of those webmag models?’ I asked casually.
‘Oh you know about those?’ said the salesman.