The room was small, dark and dusty, the small amount of moonlight from the window revealing its contents to be a desk strewn with papers, two wardrobes, some steel racks and a single, bare light-bulb, currently switched off and hanging from the ceiling more from habit than from any desire to cling on to life. It was also silent, as one would expect from a disused store room in a school after the children had long since gone home. A draught from under the door wafted in, toyed with some of the paperwork then left, evidently finding little to occupy its interest. Eventually, even the moon disappeared behind a cloud, as if popping off to find something more significant to illuminate.
It was whilst both wind and moon were absent from their posts that the room came to life: at first it was just a gentle breeze that seemed to blow from every corner of the room at the same time, then as the paperwork began to rise from the desk and distribute itself across the floor there was a sound like a box of firecrackers being dropped into a furnace. As the echoes of the sound died away the paperwork fell to the floor and in the room stood a large, wooden structure where no such item had previously been.
After a few moments, the door to the structure opened and a man dashed out, reached for the light switch and flooded the room with a warm, yellow light.
Erasmus Hobart, to his knowledge the first time traveller in human history (or at least the first to depart – there was no telling where subsequent travellers might arrive), wiped the sweat from his brow and made a half-hearted attempt to gather up some of the scattered paperwork from around the room. Somehow the mundane nature of this task was made all the worse by the fact that what had gone before had been in such stark contrast.
He turned back to the stout, wooden privy that stood conspicuously in the middle of the room. It wasn’t an obvious addition to a teacher’s store room – even a school as old as St Cuthbert’s had plumbing - but were any inquisitive soul to guess at the reason for its presence, it was remarkably unlikely that they would have guessed remotely correctly. Erasmus’ experiments in time had remained a secret for almost two years now, from the earliest experiments with sending inanimate objects through time, right up to his first personal trips, and the teacher had managed to avoid all questions, even when the topic of conversation moved to the distinct lack of 2B pencils.
He ran his hands over the surface of the time machine: it was warm, but not unduly so. Erasmus had often been concerned about the potential thermal effects of time-travel: his early experiments, when he had sent small, unmanned devices a few minutes backwards or forwards in time, had invariably resulted in the machines getting extremely hot, which Erasmus assumed to be due to some kind of temporal friction. The chance occasion on which he had, due to budgetary restraints, made one of his experimental models out of wood he had been pleasantly surprised to find it was entirely unaffected. Pleasantly surprised because not only did it mean he could build a machine which wouldn’t spontaneously combust the moment you went farther than a week from home without having to find some exotic and undoubtedly expensive metal, it also allowed him to build one which wouldn’t appear out of place through most of recorded history. An admantium time machine might well be extremely cool and wonderfully durable, but it didn’t stop it sticking out like a sore thumb in the middle of tenth century village.
He gave the machine a final pat then let out a violent exclamation as he snagged his thumb on a rough edge, giving himself a splinter. Hurriedly closing the privy door, he headed out into the classroom, his thumb in his mouth. He rummaged through the drawers of his desk, looking for something small and sharp to extract the splinter. Eventually, he located a pair of tweezers and was just closing the drawer when a shadow fell across his desk. He looked up into the wrinkled, frowning face of the school’s headmaster.
‘Evening, Clarence,’ Erasmus greeted him politely.
The headmaster bristled visibly: he hadn’t spent thirty years studying, teaching and clambering his way up the greasy pole to be referred to as Clarence. Particularly not by young teachers who were barely out of university. Feeling that complaint would achieve little, however, he reserved his indignation for a particularly loud snort.
Erasmus gave a concerned smile. ‘Are you coming down with something?’ he asked.
Clarence chose to ignore the comment. ‘You’re here rather late, Mr Hobart,’ he observed; his manner clipped and deliberately formal like a sergeant major striving to resist a speech impediment.
Erasmus looked up at the clock, which gave the time as a quarter to nine. Time had obviously passed in the present whilst he was in the past, which was interesting. Perhaps there was some kind of chronological concept of now for a given lifeform? He wondered whether the relationship was a one-to-one affair, or whether he could expect to go away for a week only to find that a year had passed in his own time.
Clarence tapped his foot impatiently until Erasmus regained his concentration and returned his gaze. The teacher looked at the headmaster with curiosity, as if only just aware of his presence.
‘I said, “you’re here rather late,” Mr Hobart.’
‘I know,’ said Erasmus. ‘But you know how it is. You start on the marking and before you know it the kids are back.’
‘And have you been here all the time?’
‘Have you been out?’
Erasmus considered this, then gestured towards the door which separated the classroom from the school beyond. ‘I assure you, Clarence, I have not been through that door all evening,’ he said.
The headmaster’s expression flickered between doubt and satisfaction. Despite his misgivings over Erasmus’ sense of decorum, if the teacher’s claim was true he could only wish the rest of the staff would show the same level of dedication – perhaps then the school would be higher in the league tables. He glanced at the blackboard: it was covered in squiggles which, to his eyes, were an unintelligible mess. He felt no shame at his inability to comprehend the information – after all, he’d studied Latin at University, not this newfangled nonsense.
‘Is that for your history class?’ he said.
Erasmus looked at the board himself, as if seeing it for the first time. ‘No,’ he said. ‘That’s physics.’
‘It looks very complicated,’ said the headmaster, caught between trying not to sound ignorant and wondering what Erasmus was doing scribbling physics notes on the blackboard of the history room.
‘Yes. I presume you didn’t come here to compliment me on my level of education, Clarence. What can I do for you?’
‘I was wondering if you’d seen anybody lurking about.’
‘This evening, you mean?’
‘Anyone in particular, or are you just hoping for company?’
The headmaster wrung his hands awkwardly. He wished that, of all his teachers, he could have found someone other than Hobart on the premises. The others might have been less dedicated, but they at least answered questions when prompted. Hobart could be astoundingly vague, and it was never clear if this was an act.
‘It’s just that Botch-’ he stopped himself from using the man’s soubriquet just in time, ‘that Mr Bulcher has reported a burglary.’
Erasmus nodded. The school caretaker, known affectionately to the students as Old Botchit, was a long-standing fixture of the school. Even Mr Salmon, the ancient Maths master the students referred to as Guppy, seemed to have no memory of when the man had taken up the brush and cap and begun his duties. But then Guppy couldn’t remember his own arrival either – popular conjecture amongst the children had it he’d been beached when the waters of Noah’s flood had retreated. Botchit lived in a small cottage at the end of the school drive, a property that came with the job, and when the demands of the school were not upon him, he could usually be found tending his vegetable garden.
‘Burglary, you say?’ Erasmus remarked. ‘Have they been at his cabbages again?’
Clarence took a deep breath. ‘No,’ he said. ‘They’ve taken his privy.’
Erasmus scratched his forehead and blinked a few times. ‘His privy,’ he echoed, as if the concept were too fantastic to grasp.
‘Yes. You know – that damned outside toilet of his.’
Erasmus masked his awkwardness with a resigned shrug. ‘Ah,’ he said. ‘Well, he does keep saying he wants to get rid of it.’
‘That’s beside the point,’ said Clarence, his voice rising slightly in pitch.
Erasmus toyed with his tweezers then began to pick at the splinter in his thumb. ‘Anything else taken?’
‘Not that we can tell, no.’
‘It’s not really a problem then, is it?’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Well. John’s been talking about getting rid of it; now it’s gone. Saves him paying the council a tenner to cart it off, doesn’t it?’
The headmaster flushed hotly, but refrained from comment. This argument wasn’t leading anywhere. ‘And you haven’t seen anyone this evening?’ he reiterated firmly.
‘Not as such, no.’
‘As such?’ Clarence could feel his temperature rising again.
‘Well, apart from yourself, that is,’ said Erasmus. ‘Obviously, I’ve seen you now, but I haven’t seen anyone else since the boys left.’ Erasmus told himself this was at least technically true: having travelled back in time, he could not have seen anyone after the boys left – at least not in their time.
Clarence, loosening his tie to allow some air to flow around him, shook his head. ‘If you hear anything, let me know,’ he said.
Erasmus nodded and Clarence turned to leave. A few steps from the desk he paused, then turned back to look at Erasmus. The schoolteacher raised his eyebrows quizzically and the headmaster paused again, balanced on the heel of his foot, then stood up straight and eyed the teacher critically.
‘Just out of interest,’ he said, ‘what is that you’re wearing?’
Erasmus looked down at his outfit. He was still dressed in the garb of a mediaeval peasant, a costume he had thought sensible for his first foray into history. He racked his brains for a suitable explanation.
‘Erm, it’s for the school play,’ he said.
‘What, Robin Hood? But you’re not in it.’
‘No,’ said Erasmus, nodding slowly as he thought, ‘but I thought it might help to engage the children’s enthusiasm for their history lesson if I got into the spirit of the thing.’
Clarence nodded, looking less than satisfied but reluctant to pursue the matter.
‘You spend far too much time here,’ he said, revising his earlier opinion about people who threw themselves into their work.
‘Quite possibly, but the cook does make a wonderful cup of tea. In fact, I might go and get one now.’
Erasmus locked the door that led to the store room and strode purposefully towards the main classroom door. Clarence watched him with curiosity.
‘Why did you lock that?’ he said.
‘It’s the store cupboard.’
‘Yes, but we haven’t used those since we built the centralised storage facility.’
Erasmus shrugged. ‘Better safe than sorry,’ he said. ‘That burglar might want to make off with a shelf next.’
Clarence watched Erasmus’ retreating back as he left the room. There was something very odd about that man. He wished he knew what it was so he could fire him and get someone else.