The thing I enjoy most about living two thousand years ago is that nothing you do has to make any sense. People don’t expect much of you when you live in ancient times. If you accidentally get something right, people are amazed and wonder how you did it. They suspect you guessed or cheated or that Space Aliens did it for you. Modern people, that is.
You can’t really talk about modern people because they live two thousand years in the future and that’s sci-fi and not at all respectable. The past, on the other hand, is thoroughly respectable and we do it at school. There are two pasts: the historical one where Romans roamed, and the religious one where Jesus, an American preacher on holiday in the Holy Land, hung out with fishermen. The Jesus one is second period on Tuesday with ‘Chickpea’ Isles, who wears a dog collar and doesn't like it when you read the begatting bits of the Bible out loud or ask why Jesus never married. The other past, the one with Hitler and the Romans, comes around more often and you have to do a GCSE in it. There’s a third history too, one with dinosaurs, but you grow out of that one by the time you’re ten.
I often wonder about modern people and what they think of us. Do they look on us affectionately as children who say the darndest things? Do they have to memorise things about us for their own exams? Or are we just too far away to be worth bothering with? I asked my friend Gaius about it and was surprised to find he thought, against all the evidence, that we were living in modern times ourselves. Maybe Jesus thought that too. Maybe he admired the fishermen’s nets and thought their boats were the bees knees, the latest thing in fish catching technology, never to be surpassed. Maybe Jesus thought we of the 21st century were sci-fi. The Bible doesn’t say.
At home I thought I’d do a little investigation for myself so I deleted the Narnia attachment from my wardrobe and downloaded a Modern Times Transporter from the Internet. I set it for the year 4022, it seemed nice and symmetrical, and climbed into the wardrobe. It was quite a squeeze to get through the hoody tops and bum trousers but I managed it somehow and emerged from the back of the wardrobe in modern times, two thousand years from now.
Standing a few feet away from me was a girl of such perfect beauty that I was in danger of forgetting my mission. I was delighted to find that modern girls no longer wore clothes, I was afraid they’d be dressed like the crew of the Starship Enterprise. Instead, she was encased in a transparent bubble. I rose to the occasion and, hoping she hadn’t noticed, extended my hand.
The girl looked at my hand. A nose probe extended from her protective bubble and sniffed at my fingers, then at my armpits. When it began edging towards my genital area I slapped it away and it snapped indignantly back into her suit. Pausing only to pull on a surgical glove and apply a peg to her nose, the girl unzipped a slit in her bubble, extended a cautious finger and touched my hand.
“Greetings,” I said. I was in sci-fi times so it seemed appropriate to do sci-fi talk. I didn’t want to be taken to her leader so I ended lamely with “I’m Mark from the olden days.”
The girl’s eyes glazed over for a few seconds as if she was listening to an inner iPod, then she responded with, “good morrow, fine fellow-me-lad. I am charmed to make your acquaintance or supper, please sneeze over whichever does not apply. I am Cleopatra, or Clipart after I’ve been wordchecked, strike me pink if I ain’t. Howdy! That will be five credits for the information. Please press the green button for a receipt. Have a nice day now and don’t wear any wooden knickers.”
I was a little confused. “Can we speak normally?” I asked. “If you told me that your Translation implant needed to adjust to my country and time period, I promise I’d believe you.”
“Sorry about that,” said Cleopatra. “My Translation implant needed to adjust to your country and time period. I hope you believe me. Why are you covered in bacteria and smelly adolescent body secretions?”
“I’m all natural and organic,” I explained. “I’m local too: I live very close to where I live. That’s the way we like things in ancient times.”
I looked around at my surroundings. I was in a room, I could tell that much by the walls, but the contents were unrecognisable. I couldn’t even hazard a guess at what they might be for. There didn’t seem to be anything to sit down on. “Nice things,” I said politely, gesturing at the clutter.
“Why, thank you,” said Cleopatra. “They’re all the latest, you know. I’m an early adopter. If you can get things first, you can be the first to have them. My Spam implant tells me that’s a good thing. Oh, and please type me ‘Cleo’ or you’ll get RSI.”
“You have a Spam implant?” I asked incredulously.
“Of course. How else would I know what to buy?”
“You could buy things you wanted?” I suggested.
“But how would I know what to want?”
Cleo’s eyes went blank again and a seraphic smile spread over her face. “Daydreams enhanced in post-production,” she whispered. “Sequences shortened. Results may vary, and certainly will. Terms and conditions apply.”
I wondered whether I should try to wake her but decided instead to have a look around. I prodded a few of the mystery objects but they didn’t seem to do anything. One fell over. I tried to put it back the way I’d found it but I couldn’t make it balance so I left it where it was.
The room had no window but in one wall was a door. It was a very ordinary looking door, one that you might buy in a builders’ merchant in ancient times. I opened it a crack and peeked round the edge. Behind it was another door. This door was made of metal and had a crack down the centre. I presumed it parted in the middle but since it had no handle I didn’t know how it could be opened. I had no need to worry: as soon as I opened the first door fully the second also opened with a gentle hissing sound. Behind it was a third door; this one appeared to open like an iris. Once I’d located the sensor pad and pressed my hand against it, the third door opened too, revealing an up-and-over garage door. I opened that one and, you’ve guessed it, behind it was yet another door. By this time I was beginning to feel inexplicably guilty, all I wanted was a peek at what was outside, but I closed all the doors again and made my way back to Cleo, who appeared to be waking from her daydream.
“Would you like an iScream?” she asked brightly. “All the boys will admire you and you don’t really have to eat it.”
I couldn’t see that boys could do anything but admire her in her transparent bubble, with or without an iScream, but wasn’t sure how to express the opinion. As for me, I could easily do without being admired by boys and I didn’t feel like risking sci-fi snacks on my ancient digestive system. I declined.
Cleo shrugged. “They’re never as good as the daydream,” she said, “but you have to keep hoping.” She lay back comfortably inside her bubble. “I expect you’ve come to tell me the Secrets of the Ancients,” she said. “I’m listening.”
“What sort of things would you like to know?” I inquired.
“Oh, you know, how you managed to make your buildings with blocks so rough and uneven that you can easily get a knife between them, that would be a start.”
“I think builders use cement to fill in the gaps,” I said.
“Oh.” She sounded disappointed. “I thought Space Aliens must have done it for you.”
I felt an urge to please her so I racked my brains for something she might approve of. “The prettier a thing is,” I began, “the more healing powers it has.” That was the kind of secret girls of my day would like. With knowledge like that you could play doctor without the pain and inconvenience of having to learn anything. You could be famous on the telly, not stuck away in some boring old GP’s surgery with sick people coughing all over you.
“Healing not found. Feeling? Peeling? Heeding? No other suggestions,” said Cleo.
Damn these modern times, I bet nobody ever gets ill any more. Mind you, alternative therapies work best on people who have nothing wrong with them in the first place. If all they need is an adjustment to the aura of their chi, you can fix them up in no time. Nobody but you can recognise their illness, and nobody but you knows when they’re all better again. They just have to take your word for it. I could see a business opportunity here but wasn’t sure I liked modern times enough to want to live in them. Not enough windows and too many doors. “That could be a metaphor,” I said out loud, “if only I could think what for.”
“Metaphor not found. Semaphore? Metronome? No other suggestions,” said Cleo.
“I don’t mean to be rude, Cleo, but you do sound a bit Microsoft at times,” I observed.
“All my implants are Microsoft (trademark), “ she said proudly. “I’m Microsoft (trademark) through and through.”
She turned over and pointed to the Microsoft logo sewn onto one of her buttocks. The other had an Apple icon.
“No Gucci, then?” I inquired, trying desperately to keep my mind on my mission.
“It’s a label ancient girls have to make people admire them."
"It sounds like something you'd say in a daydream about babies. Who's a good little consumer, then? Goochy goochy choo."
I suppose these – ah – objects do the same thing? I’m afraid I knocked one of them over.”
“Did you? I don’t think they have to go any particular way up, you just have to own the latest one. They show I have my own unique identity, just like everybody else's."
"Isn't that a contradiction? You're different but the same?"
"Of course not. Everybody wants to be unique but nobody wants to be different. Being different makes you unpopular. My shopping lets me express my own unique personality which, lucky for me, is the same as everybody else's. These days I don’t even have my things delivered, I just put them straight into storage.”
“Because your Spam implant told you to?”
“The storage was my idea,” she said proudly. “It came to me in a daydream. I realised that everyone would admire me more than ever if I never even saw my shopping. The music was good too, and there were some really fit boys.”
“What other implants have you got?”
“Oh, just the usual for a girl. Hair and Nails, Beauty Products, Shoes, Female Stereotypes, that sort of thing.”
Now I came to look, she was indeed wearing shoes inside her bubble. I couldn’t think why I hadn’t noticed them before.
“Female stereotypes?” I asked. Given the nature of the other implants, that one seemed a bit redundant.
“It makes sure I can’t recognise cars or read maps or do anything un-feminine. Go on, ask me a maths question. I bet I can’t do it.”
I believed her about the maths and couldn’t see any point in pursuing the matter. “What’s outside?” I asked instead.
“What’s outside?” she asked in return.
I was confused. Did she know I’d opened some of the doors? Did she think I’d opened them all? “I was hoping you’d know,” I said.
“Why should I know? Is outside a thing you have in ancient times? I don’t think we have it any more.”
“So where does the door go?” I asked.
Cleo looked as confused as I felt. “It stays where it is,” she replied. “I’ve got lots of them. They give me the lifestyle I want.”
“What would happen if I opened them all?”
“Then I’d have lots of opened doors,” Cleo snapped. “You do ask silly questions.”
I tried a different tack. “Have you ever been anywhere that isn’t this room?”
“All the time,” she said. “Only an hour ago I was being chased by lots of fit boys. It was in a room so big I couldn’t even see the walls. It had a very high blue and white ceiling. The boys admired me because I was carrying an iProduct. I had to buy one to make it all real and I bought it and now it is real. It’s one of my fondest memories.”
I suspected that she’d never been out of the room at all. I wondered whether I should ask about her parents but was afraid of what I might find out. I decided not to outstay my welcome but there was one last thing to do. I’d never forgive myself if I didn’t at least try.
“Come inside my bubble?” Cleo was horrified. “You in your filthy rags and smelly skin? That’s just so vile, it’s…” her Translation implant struggled for a word “…it’s un-fit. You’re un-fit. You’re all pikey.”
“One last thing before I go,” I said. “Will you please read out what I’ve written on this card?”
"Bring me that asp," said Cleopatra.
Ah well, I haven’t learned much about modern times and I didn’t even use the Chickpea reference I’d planted so carefully, but at least I can make the IP on ABCtales if I can squeeze back through the wardrobe in time. Or squeeze back through time in the wardrobe. Either will do.