Okay, this challenge has definitely set the cat among the pigeons. Writers were invited, incautiously on my part, to get in their tardises and go sightseeing. The only conditions were that you not change anything, and stay out of your own lifetime.
Minorvogonpoet has taken on the challenge with her usual verve and gift for vivid storytelling. In this fictional account, our heroine finds that the theft of a time-travel device can be its own punishment...and that the past might have been less rosy than we remember it.
Way to go, MVP.
I Want to Be a Victorian Lady
At last, I was standing in front of a time machine, after a year of work and planning. It would have been romantic if the machine had brass wheels and produced puffs of steam. Instead it consisted of a stainless steel pod, housing a monitor, a keyboard and a chair to which you strapped yourself.
I had yearned to go time travelling since I was a little girl. As soon as I heard that the Institue for Research into Time Travel had built a working machine, I wanted to have a go. It proved easy to get into the IRTT. I applied for a job as a cleaner and I was soon vacuuming among the scientists crouched over their computers. Maybe they were too absorbed to notice me, or else they thought that no cleaner would understand their work.
I listened to them talking about wormholes and time co-ordinates and read the papers they left strewn on desks. I heard them mourn the loss of a colleague, who had vanished into the Jurassic and never returned. Somehow, they had got the machine back. After a while, I thought I knew how it worked. This morning, I let myself into the laboratory at seven, before the scientists arrived. There was the usual mess of papers and coffee cups left on desks. The machine was unlocked, which seemed very careless but suited me.
I knew where, or rather when, I wanted to go. My life had consisted of a string of boring office jobs, followed by cleaning. I wanted a life of glamour and romance, so the idea of being a Victorian lady appealed to me. I saw myself riding round London in a carriage, then sweeping into a room in a silk dress and pearls. Servants would open doors and gentlemen would rise.
I set the co-ordinates to London 1850, strapped myself in and pressed the button marked ‘Activate'. At once, I was flung sideways and spun round with great force. I was tossed and tumbled as if I had stepped into a washing machine. It seemed ages before the spinning stopped. I unstrapped myself from the chair, opened the door and fell out of the pod.
I scrambled to my feet and found myself in an underground room, lit by gas lamps. There were two large, stone sinks aginst a wall, and a dark cupboard in a corner. Even in the poor light, I could see that the stone floor was covered with a mixture of grease and soot, while the whitewashed walls were grey. I heard the clatter of feet on stone stairs and pushed the time machine into the cupboard. It was full of coal and black with soot, but I had no time to find a better hiding place.
The door opened and a woman stood there, in a black dress, starched white apron and cap. When she saw me, her face took on a bright purple colour.
“What are you doing, girl, dressed like that ?” she demanded. “Have you no modesty?”
Too late, I remembered that I was wearing jeans and a sweatshirt. “There's been a mistake.”
“There certainly has. And I'd thank you to call me Mrs Parris. Go and get a proper uniform out of the linen cupboard. And be quick about it. I want the grate cleaned.”
“I'm not a servant.” I stuttered.
“You're the new scullery maid. Must be. Well, you won't be a servant in this house much longer unless you learn how to behave. Wrap a towel round you and come with me.”
There seemed no alternative to doing as I was told. Once I was properly dressed, Mrs Parris chivvied me into the drawing room, where I found a fireplace, surrounded by brown glazed tiles. Above it, a mantelpiece was set with china vases, and above that hung the portrait of a grim-faced lady. The grate was full of grey ashes.
“Empty this and clean it properly.”
I got down on my knees and started to sweep the ashes into a bucket. It was filthy work and I was soon covered with soot and started to cough. However, it gave me time to I consider my position It was clear that I was no nearer to being a lady than I had been in the twenty-first century. I was furious with myself for making such a stupid mistake. I could control the time in which I arrived, but I couldn't choose my place in society. There was only one thing I could do, and that was to return to the time machine as soon as possible.
I gathered up my bucket and returned to the scullery. A big man with a ginger beard stood by the door.
“If you've finished cleaning the grate, Miss, I'll bring in another scuttle full of coal.”
“It's all right, I'll fetch the coal scuttle,” I said. I had to get to the time machine before anyone else saw it. Otherwise, the whole household would know about it.
He laughed. “You'd never lift it, a slip of a girl like you.”
“Just a minute. I think I dropped something in there.”
I dashed into the coal store but there was nothing there except blackness. I gazed at the empty space. Someone must have moved the time machine but who? Surely, if f the servants had found such a strange object, they would have commented on it. Then a cold wave of realisation swept over me. I remembered the scientists talking about bringing back the time machine from the Jurassic. They had mentioned a recall button. It seemed that they had called the machine home.