“OK, class, let’s put on our suits. We’re going on a trip!” Mrs Marshall’s voice rang out loud and clear. This once weekly occurrence never failed to liven up the class. The virtual time travel suits were still relatively new and could provide high quality experiences, currently thought to be the best learning tool ever. What better way to learn about something than to actually live it? TTS (time travel simulation) had only been around for six months or so and Hutton Heath Secondary School was the first school in England to use the technology. There were ten modules.
The excited chatter of the class died down as helmets were secured, various body sensors attached and primary tests carried out.
“Everyone ready?” Mrs Marshall asked after a few minutes. Each child made the gesture for yes and Mrs Marshall keyed some code into the operator box.
Noel looked around at the landscape opening up before him. So this was the year 2025. It was so lifelike he felt he was there. He felt the virtual breeze on his face and smelled car fumes. Last week their trip had been to the mid twentieth century. He felt in his virtua-pocket, a small pouch, and found some coins. His left knee was slightly sore. He hadn’t expected to feel that through the suit.
He’d been plasti-skating last night which was similar to ice-skating but you skated on a plastic surface which was supposed to bend and cushion your fall if you did fall on it. Ice was practically non-existent, not having any use these days when drinks could be super-chilled at the touch of a button and every town had a plasti-rink. Noel had tripped and fallen on to his knee but so suddenly that the plastic had not cushioned him in time. This technology was also rather new. Noel didn’t wear his old-fashioned knee pads any more to avoid being laughed at.
Only the very old didn’t trust technology these days. Oddly enough, he couldn’t remember who he’d been racing, only that he’d won. That was strange.
“Good morning, Noel,” came a robotic voice from seemingly behind him, “welcome to the city of London. You will be learning today about life in the year 2025 from a combination of real footage and simulated events. Remember, you are mentally in the year 2025 although your body is back in the classroom; you are unable to be physically hurt, but please use common sense, remember safety procedures and stay with the rest of your group. Enjoy your visit.”
Noel turned around to find the rest of the group. Everyone looked pretty much like they did in real life, minus all the equipment they had to wear in order to do this. Apart from Eric who couldn’t manage to stay still for the three and a half seconds the digital image photo took and had three arms and an extra wide head. But there was nothing that could be done until the following week. Eric didn’t care anyway since he couldn’t see himself.
“Look at these old cars!” Noel took in the chunky vehicles. Nothing like their modern day bullet cars which were smaller, sleeker and speedier.
“We’re going to a supermarket,” announced Mrs Marshall, “follow me. A supermarket, as you probably know, is an old fashioned shop where you had to walk round, looking for what you wanted to buy, pay for it there and then, and carry it home. Internet shopping was also used but it was much more basic than today. All stay together please.”
They crossed the road and entered a large building.
“When we’ve finished here,” Mrs Marshall continued, “we’re all going to write an essay contrasting this trip with last week’s mid-twentieth century shopping experience.”
The children walked into the entrance-way of the supermarket and gazed around them.
“It’s like a warehouse, where our groceries come from,” mused Eric, spinning around to take in the sight.
“Ow,” complained Noel, as Eric’s spare arm caught him across the back.
“Oh, sorry mate. Didn’t see you there.”
“In front of you are your shopping lists,” instructed Mrs Marshall, “we’ll be going around the supermarket retrieving these items. Follow me.”
A virtual list flashed up in front of Noel. It read:
- A Pint of Milk
- A Dozen Eggs
Noel followed the rest of the group who were, in turn, following Mrs Marshall.
“Grab yourselves a basket!” she enthused, pointing at the yellow plastic baskets in the corner.
“What’s a pint?” asked Jessica, saying it to rhyme with mint.
“What’s a dozen?” asked Noel, pronouncing it dough-zen.
“You’ll soon find out,” replied Mrs Marshall, “OK, here we are at the fruit and vegetable section.”
“Oh my God!” cried Jessica, “these apples are round!”
“And the melons! That’s so weird.”
“And the grapes!!”
"Yes, that’s right,” replied Mrs Marshall, “we didn’t have square space-saving fruit more than fifteen years ago. Help yourselves to a plastic bag from that dispenser and choose some apples.”
Every child rushed to the apple stand. Noel couldn’t seem to get anywhere near. He looked round for a place to jump in but then something caught his eye. Or rather someone. He froze and his blood ran cold.
Noel watched in shock as his father walked past the vegetable stands, a yellow basket swinging from his arm. Not only was it surreal to see someone you knew but also very weird since Noel’s father had died six years ago. He wasn’t sure what happened when you tried to speak to someone in a TTS. He knew they would move out of your way or smile at you.
Last week Eric had trod on an old woman’s toe and, much to the amusement of the class, she had yelled at him. Noel had to find out. Checking that Mrs Marshall wasn’t looking, he stepped backwards and disappeared into the crowd of people heading down aisle three.
“Dad,” he called, “Dad! It’s Noel!!”
His father stopped and turned around, looking down at him.
“Noel,” he smiled, reaching down and picking him up. Noel smelled the familiar smell of engine oil and realised he’d missed this man more than he realised. Thanks to the sophistication of the TTS, the hug felt real.
“How did you get into the simulation?” Noel asked, confused.
His father looked puzzled.
“What are you talking about, lad?” he asked, “where’s your mother?”
Noel just stared at him, unsure how to proceed.
"Here by yourself are you?” his father continued, “you can come home with me if you like. Your mother cooked some of those peanut biscuits you like before I left. I have to fix the roof this afternoon – you can help me if you like.”
Noel suddenly felt sick with a feeling of déjà vu. His head spun. His dad had died falling off his roof whilst trying to repair the slates. Oh my god – today was the day he died. He had to stop it but –
….this wasn’t real.
“Noel, there you are!” announced Mrs Marshall, “we thought we’d lost you! You haven’t even got your apples!”
“My dad was here,” said Noel in a small voice.
“Never mind the animation. Let’s get on with our shopping. Come now, class. Who can tell me what a pint is?”
Noel turned back and found that his dad had disappeared. He dropped his basket, not caring whether or not Mrs Marshall was watching, and began to dash around the aisles.
“Hello there, young man, would you like to try some maxi-biotic yogurt?”
Noel ignored the female hologram and pursued his dad, ironically also a kind of hologram. He finally found him.
“Dad,” he whispered breathlessly.
“I’m off home now, lad,” he smiled, “you coming or not?”
Noel felt someone grab him by the collar.
“Noel!! I’ve told you once already – stay with the group! Where’s your basket?”
“See you, Noel!” called his dad, already heading away.
“No!” he cried, “Dad – wait!!”
“Come on Noel! Back to the class! You’ll have detention later if you’re not careful!”
“Don’t go on the roof!” Noel screamed, “please don’t fix the roof!”
The man turned and looked quizzically at his son, probably wondering what all the screaming was about.
“DON’T GO ON THE ROOF TODAY!!!!!”
Mrs Marshall had hold of his collar and practically dragged him back to the rest of the class.
“Now I’ve told you all how important it is that we stay together, haven’t I? Noel’s just earned himself a detention wandering off despite my instructions. He hasn’t managed to get anything in his basket. In fact he doesn’t even have a basket!”
The other school children laughed as Noel tried to blink back his tears. Not many of these other children would experience losing their father twice.
“A dozen,” explained Mrs Marshall, “is an old word meaning twelve. Now of course we get ten eggs in a pack. Be careful picking up your egg boxes.”
“Oops,” said Eric, egg yolk dripping down his palm. Again, the class giggled. Noel turned to look behind him. He felt a sudden jolt and couldn’t move. Mrs Marshall must have frozen his TTS suit.
“Noel, you will stay here with the rest of the group. And you're going to do detention. The rest of you, take note. If you try to wander off, I will freeze your suit so you can’t move – understand?”
Mrs Marshall can be very mean when she wants to be, thought Eric, I’m glad she didn’t catch me when I wandered off last week. I wonder why Noel looks so sad, he looks like he’s about to cry.
Eric waved his three arms at Noel to elicit a laugh but it didn’t work. Noel looked lost in a world of his own. He just looked lost.
“Can anyone tell me what butter is?” asked Mrs Marshall.
“It’s like Bread-Spread,” said Jessica, “but very bad for you.”
“That’s right,” replied Mrs Marshall, “it was banned in 2025, along with salt, sugar, alcohol and cheese. That was the year Bread-Spread replaced unhealthy foods such as butter and margarine, and Eazy-Cheezy replaced traditional cheese made from milk. People used to eat such rubbish, believe it or not. About eighty five per cent of them used to clog up the hospitals dying of diseases they’d inflicted on themselves by eating rubbish and drinking alcohol. And of course, smoking cigarettes. Can anyone tell me what year cigarettes were banned?”
“2024?” hazarded Eric. Mrs Marshall handed Noel an empty basket.
“Close,” she replied, “2027 in fact. People used to pay a fortune for this poison, in the form of white sticks, to suck into their lungs, which would kill them approximately twenty years before their natural time of death. Quite amazing really. No wonder our parents only lived until seventy or eighty. My parents are in their nineties today and still very fit.”
Mrs Marshall didn’t notice Noel visibly pale and shudder.
“Finally, soap. Follow me down the cosmetics aisle. Can anyone see anything unusual?”
“This soap is weird, Mrs Marshall,” observed Jessica, eyeing the round green bar she had picked up.
“That’s right, Jessica. People used to apply soap in their showers or baths and rinse it off with water. Now of course we use powdered soap which falls off into our cleansing tray along with all the dirt. This takes about four seconds as opposed to a lengthy three minute shower which our poor grandparents used to have to take.”
Noel did like the cleansing tray. Most kids hated it, the way kids used to hate bathing. First thing in the morning you’d step on to your cleansing tray (which was self-cleaning so it would be immaculate), a fine mist of powder would be sprayed at you and would immediately fall off and drain, along with any dirt or debris. And that was it. You would emerge four seconds later, dry and smelling subtly of whichever cleansing powder happened to be your favourite. Your body and hair would be clean and healthy and your cleansing tray would clean itself ready for the next occupant.
“OK class, let’s go and pay. Noel, I’m releasing you now but one false move and I contact your mother. Am I understood?”
“Yes, Mrs Marshall,” murmured Noel quietly, staring at the shiny stone floor. The class formed a queue beside the checkout. Noel had only soap in his basket so would have failed at this assignment but he didn’t care one iota at the moment.
Jessica was first in the queue. The checkout assistant processed her purchases and said, “that’s five pounds and thirty two pence, please.”
Jessica gasped, “that’s so cheap! My mum spent five thousand pounds on the shopping last week!”
“Remember this is the year 2025, Jessica,” Mrs Marshall sighed, rolling her eyes. Jessica found some virtual money in her virtua-pocket and paid the assistant. She examined her change, interested in the dated coinage. The rest of the class followed.
Back in the classroom, Eric removed his kit and shook his arms in front of him, seemingly surprised that he only had two. Noel despondently removed his kit and sat at his table, gazing out the window on to the sun-lit grass. Couldn’t he tell I was a TTS hologram, he wondered miserably, like he was to me?
“Don’t forget, class,” prompted Mrs Marshall, “write an essay tonight comparing today with last week’s trip. One thousand words. Remember also that I’ve disabled all your auto-spellers from my terminal, so if you spell something wrong on your computers, I’ll know tomorrow. Noel stay exactly where you are and type “I will not run off while on a trip” three hundred times on your computer.”
Some things never change, thought Noel, and began his laborious task. Two hours later, he had finished. He packed his computer bag and headed for home on the moving pathway. The door slid open, recognising his retinal pattern from two metres away and Noel entered his house despondently.
“Noel, come in here!” called his mother.
"Coming,” he muttered disinterestedly.
"You’re late tonight,” she scolded good-naturedly, “have you forgotten you’re supposed to be going plasti-skating?”
Noel turned slowly around to see his grinning dad, already in his plasti-skates, holding out a hand in Noel’s direction.
“Come on lad!” he cried excitedly, “let’s get going! I’ll definitely beat you in the race tonight!”