The end of the school day came, as it always did, as something of a relief. Despite having a passion for teaching, Erasmus always felt the school day was at least half an hour too long and that the hours of eight-thirty ‘til four o’clock had been arrived at with more consideration to the children’s parents than to the children themselves. He retrieved his board rubber from the back of the room for the third time that day, then sat down at his desk and finished his mug of tea, before rolling the blackboard round to the squiggles that had so confused Clarence the previous night.
Ciphered in the impenetrable scrawl was the key to time, an equation so elegant it was almost a work of art, yet so simple it should scarcely have taxed a remedial student and yet – and yet – it was he, Erasmus Hobart, who had discovered that equation, who had realised it could be applied to create a machine that could travel back. He adjusted a couple of figures based on the maiden voyage of the night before then tossed the board rubber in his hand as he basked in the glory of his achievement.
Where should he go tonight? Should he try to solve some great mystery, like what exactly happened on the Marie Celeste, or try to meet one of history’s great statesmen for an interview? Perhaps, he considered, he could try to find the truth of the Robin Hood legend. It was certainly an interesting proposition.
He pocketed the board rubber and picked up his mediaeval costume, which he had washed at home the previous night. Then, mindful of Clarence’s intrusion after his previous outing, he locked the door to the corridor before unlocking the store room. Inside the small room, the privy stood, silent and expectant. Erasmus ignored it for the moment and turned his attention to the wardrobes, opening the door to the first and revealing a rack of clothing, with plastic hangings dividing them into sections. Each section was labelled with a range of dates for the era to which the clothes belonged, with sections like the 1500’s, where fashion had changed on an almost weekly basis, being contrasted with those of earlier centuries, where advances in clothing had been seen as secondary to the continual struggle to survive.
Erasmus hung his clean clothing in the 1100s section then rifled through the other clothes in the same era, looking for something more likely to blend in with forest surroundings. He finally settled on a brown tunic with matching cloak and trousers, which he complemented with a leather belt, a pouch and a pair of calfskin thigh boots.
He dressed hurriedly then checked his appearance in the mirror on the inside of the wardrobe door. Perfect – except for one detail. He rummaged in a drawer at the bottom of the wardrobe and pulled out a small, cloth bag, inside which were a pair of contact lenses. He disliked wearing lenses, but his glasses were a product of a later era. Although he had no way of knowing how much impact introducing advanced technology into the ancient world would have, he didn’t want to be the man who went down in history for ruining it.
Having assured the authenticity of his costume, Erasmus examined himself in the mirror once more. He was probably a little clean for a mediaeval peasant, but that should go unnoticed for long enough for him to attract a little dirt. He practised a few mediaeval expressions, greeting himself as if he had just unaccountably run into his exact doppelganger in a village street. Then, satisfied he would pass muster, he picked up his modern clothes from where they lay on the floor and hung them up in the second wardrobe.
As he turned his jacket up the right way, the board rubber fell from its pocket and, distractedly, Erasmus attempted to put the implement back. It wasn’t so easy to insert the rubber into the pocket of a jacket he wasn’t wearing, however, and after failing on his first attempt, he popped it into the pouch he wore on his belt. He closed the wardrobe doors, then a thought occurred to him and he returned to the classroom.
Standing in the corner of the room was the bow he had confiscated from Atkinson. Erasmus picked it up and tested the string once more. He’d never fired a bow before, but it was unlikely anyone else would guess that, so carrying one would probably be a sensible measure to discourage anyone from attacking him. Finally satisfied that he was ready to depart, Erasmus re-entered the store room, locking the door behind him, then turned his attention to the privy.
The interior of the privy was not what one might have expected from such a primitive device. Although the essential seat was present and correct, it was covered with a padded leather cushion, firmly fastened into place with brass studs. The walls, far from being bare wood, were covered with a mass of wires and small, blinking lights and a periscope hung from the centre of the ceiling, its brass glinting in the light from the outside world.
Erasmus sat down on the cushion, adjusted his posture to make himself comfortable, then pulled at a wooden panel that was almost flush with the wall on his right. The panel swung on smoothly oiled joints until it hung over Erasmus’ lap like one of the old-fashioned school desks in which chair and writing surface were one combined piece of furniture. The surface of this desk, however, contained something more than an inkwell, with a series of lights and liquid crystal displays, all connected to each other with lengths of rainbow-striped ribbon cable. In the centre of the panel was a series of buttons, a small keyboard, a joystick with a big red button on top and a throttle, all cobbled together from bits of old computer equipment, and these were labelled, using the black and white embossed stickers from a label maker Erasmus had confiscated from a troublesome first former. The joystick was labelled ‘where’ and the throttle was labelled ‘when’.
Erasmus flicked a switch on the side of the board and the privy hummed into life, with lights streaming along translucent wires, LED’s flicking on and off in what appeared to be random sequences and the displays on the control panel blinking a couple of times before settling down. A series of numbers appeared, the co-ordinates of Erasmus’ previous jaunt, with a prompt for a label displayed in flashing capitals beneath. The schoolteacher entered in a date and location - his research had placed Lady Godiva’s ride in Coventry somewhere between 1038 and 1051 – then pressed the button to store the information. It wasn’t, he had to admit, a very precise fix, but it was a start. He’d be able to improve on that when he’d made a few more trips.
Erasmus surveyed the control panel before him and breathed deeply. Last night had been an experiment - he had had no real destination in mind - now he was going to put his machine to the purpose he had always intended – the pursuit of historical truth. It was true he would never be able to tell anyone what he discovered – he was less than willing that his machine should fall into the hands of the authorities – but he could finally find the answers to all those questions that had nagged him throughout his life: he could finally know what really happened. He placed his hands on the joystick and the throttle, moved them carefully until he was satisfied with the contents of the display, then closed his eyes and pressed the red button.