“For God’s sake Clare. That’s political correctness gone mad.”
“Liam!” cried Susie, elbowing him in the ribs.
“But it’s true,” he replied, taking a sip of his cocktail. The three of them had a prime table by the window, they’d arrived at the restaurant early and the place was filling up around them. It was a young crowd, and most people were standing by the bar, the mechanised waitresses weaving around them.“Please Clare, carry on,” said Susie.
“There’s nothing else to tell,” replied Clare, regarding her glass morosely.
“Did you speak to the Headmaster…what’s his name? Donovan.”
“He doesn’t work on Tuesdays. I’ll try tomorrow, but I know what he’ll say.”
“Clare,” continued Liam, “is it really such an issue? How old was the kid anyway – four, five?”
“Seven,” said Clare.
Liam leaned forward, his gym-toned limbs monopolising the table.
“But it’s such an archaic word, pleb,” he lowered his voice as he said it. “I could understand if he swore or something –”
“It’s a disgusting word,” snapped Clare.
“I agree, it’s completely inappropriate,” added Susie.
Liam shook his head.
“He’s getting it from the father,” continued Clare, “God knows what else he’s exposing him to.”
“Well that’s not your problem. You can’t control what happens when a child leaves the classroom?” said Liam.
Clare leaned forward, “I’m his teacher Liam. It’s my responsibility.”
“It’s just a job Clare,” he sniggered.
“It’s not just a job,” said Clare, “and I’m not going to stand for it.”
“Oh really, and what exactly do you propose to do?”
“I’m going to give them a history lesson, that’s what.”
Liam and Susie glanced at each another.
“I’m going to teach them about the Great Automation,” she continued, snapping her fingers and prompting a robotic waitress to sidle up to them.
The waitress had the dimensions of a mannequin, with plates of white polycarbonate plastic covering its limbs and body. Its head was smooth and sparse, with round eyes that glowed a gentle hue of green.
The trio ordered sushi, the highlight of which was the Otoro tuna. “Flown in fresh from Japan this morning” enthused the waitress in a grounded contralto. A third round of cocktails was also requested, although Clare’s Mojito was delayed for several minutes whilst a runner was despatched to find lychees.
As she sipped her drink, her friends regarded her inquisitively. Susie – petite and intense – was the first to break the silence.
“You can’t be serious about this Clare? You’ll scare them. They’re too young.”
“Too young for what?” said Clare. “They’re surrounded by machines every day. Waited on hand and foot just like the rest of us.” She waved a hand at their surroundings.
“You know what I mean,” replied Susie.
“Don’t worry, I’ll break it to them gently. I’m a professional teacher remember?”
Liam smirked and Clare mouthed an obscenity at him.
“But you might lose your job,” continued Susie. “You know how Donovan can be.”
Susie had worked at the school herself briefly, but had retired on her twenty-fifth birthday to become a professional artist. Liam on the other hand had never worked. A typical business major, he’d retired as soon as he’d graduated, devoting his life to sports, fine wines and recreational futures trading.
Clare took a sip from her drink then spat the straw back into the glass.
“With all due respect Susie, I’m their teacher and it’s my decision. Screw Donovan and screw the parents.”
Liam grinned and Susie pursed her lips.
“I’m sorry Susie,” continued Clare, “But I feel strongly about this.”
Susie stared at her blankly then rose to her feet.
“I need to powder my nose,” she said, grabbing her handbag and signalling to Clare.
“Ooh, can I come?” asked Liam.
“No you can’t,” said Susie, and the two of them left the table.
The toilets were situated at the back of the restaurant. Susie led the way; past the men’s and the woman’s and through a third undesignated door at the end of the corridor.
The room contained a row of marble hand-basins facing several cubicles. The cubicles were larger than the standard toilet size and each housed a small bench and table ensemble. Susie washed her hands then entered a cubicle closely followed by Clare. Inside the pair sat at the bench and Susie produced a small bag of powder, out of which she poured several lines onto the mirrored surface of the table. She pulled a straw out of her handbag, and started snorting the powder.
“That little boy,” said Susie after a couple of lines, “what’s his name?”
“Robbie…Robbie McIntyre” replied Clare.
“Jeff McIntyre’s son?”
“Jesus Clare, he’s high profile. Liam’s dad plays golf with him.”
“He’s an arrogant bastard is what he is,” replied Clare.
Susie dropped the straw and pinched her nose.
“How will you do it?” she asked.
“I don’t know…I’ll probably take them to the robotics museum or something.”
“And you think Jeff will agree to that?” she said.
“I won’t tell him.”
Susie froze, her eyes blazing.
“You can’t make that sort of decision without consulting the parents,” she said. “They’ll report you to the Education Board. Donovan will fire you in a second.”
“Who cares about that? I’ll be leaving soon anyway. This may be my last chance to make a difference in their lives. I just want to tell them the truth that’s all. God knows they’ll find out eventually.”
“Yes, but –”
Clare reached over and dabbed a finger into Susie’s powder. “You worry too much that’s your problem. You need to cut down on this stuff,” she said, licking her finger. “It’s possible to have too much of a good thing you know?”
Susie shook her head and picked up the straw.
“A history lesson is one thing. If you start filling their heads with that rubbish, I’ll report you myself.”
Clare stood on the steps staring up at the museum. It was two hundred years old, but despite some extensive renovations had retained its archaic majesty. It was fronted by several stone pillars and two marble lions guarding the entrance. The children loved it.
Her class was large, four students in total: the Johnson twins, Melanie Bancroft and McIntyre’s son, Robbie. The twins were six and Melanie and Robbie were seven, fours years below the official curriculum age for learning about the Great Automation.
The museum’s curator had scheduled an abridged tour for them, specifically tailored to the children’s needs. It was perfect. Donovan didn’t work on Fridays, and by the time he’d find out it would be too late.
They climbed the stone steps, past the pillars, and into the main entrance hall. The hall contained several oversized historical exhibits, including a fully functioning printing press and a steam engine. The centre of the floor was dominated by a full-scale reproduction of the Apollo moon lander, behind which stood a flight of marble stairs leading into the heart of the collection.
The group was accompanied by two robotic classroom assistants, whom Clare had instructed to check-in the children’s bags whilst she met the curator. She was relieved to see he was human, an elderly gentleman with kind eyes and an immaculately groomed moustache. He whisked her off to a side room and they discussed the itinerary. They agreed he should focus on the broad technical marvels of the era, and avoid any darker content.
With the preliminaries completed, Clare introduced him to the children and the tour began.
They travelled through the exhibits by electric cart, their progress interspersed by short ‘informative’ films. The children were given a potted history of machines over the centuries. They strolled through a Victorian cotton mill, climbed aboard a Model T Ford and sat in the cockpit of a twentieth century fighter jet. They learned about computers and the internet, and the profusion of microchip technology. Finally they learnt about the Great Automation itself, to the time when scientists created artificial intelligence, automating the global workforce and making the world a better place for everyone.
They were shown working examples of the first humanoid robots, as well the more specialised drone varieties (used for deep-sea exploration, aviation and law enforcement). There were also shown interactive exhibits, including a toy section and an automated petting zoo, and the classroom assistants proved engaging throughout, incorporating themselves into the curator’s tour, even feigning jovial alarm when the children viewed a dissected exhibit.
Before they knew it the tour was over, and the curator had brought them back to the reception and bid them a fond farewell. The assistants collected their bags and Clare took the group to a nearby park for a lunchtime picnic.
It was a gorgeous day, and the park was lush and green. They found a suitably shady spot by a pond and ate their packed lunches as joggers and dog walkers passed periodically.
As they ate, they talked about the museum. Clare got them to describe their favourite exhibits, and when they’d finished eating she handed out tablet screens for them to draw what they’d seen.
As the assistants cleared the leftovers, Clare sat with the children on the grass. They were relaxed and content, chattering absently as they drew.
It was the perfect moment to begin.
“Does anyone know how many people there are in the world?”
The twins said there was thousands. Robbie said millions, “millions and millions!”
Clare smiled. “There’s actually a hundred million people in the world.”
She wrote the number down so they could see what it looked like. Melanie regarded the number thoughtfully then asked Clare how there could possibly be enough room for so many people.
“Oh, there’s more than enough room Melanie, the world is very big. In the old days there used to be billions of people.”
“Billions?” cried Robbie, discarding his tablet on the grass.
“Yes,” said Clare, “almost eight billion at one point.”
The children gasped, and she wrote the new number down on her screen.
“That’s too many people!” said Melanie.
“Well actually Melanie, you’re right. It was.”
Clare explained that with so many people in the world it was hard to feed them all, and many of them went hungry. The air was filthy with pollution and people were very unhappy, and sometimes whole countries would go to war with one another.
“People had to live in big cities, all squashed together, working long hours, sometimes five, six or even seven days a week. And the work was very boring and often dangerous, but they had no choice because there were no robots to do it for them.”
“Why weren’t there any robots?” asked Robbie.
Clare explained that they hadn’t been invented, and it was only during the Great Automation that robots were finally able to help.
“But there was still a problem,” she continued. “Once the robots took all the jobs there were many people who couldn’t afford to live anymore.”
“What do you mean?” said Robbie.
“Well, robots were very expensive and only rich people could afford them. And because the robots had taken over all the jobs…well, the poor people couldn’t earn money anymore.”
“So what happened to them?” asked Melanie.
Clare took a deep breath.
“Well, many of them starved to death or died from disease. There was also a big war, which killed a lot of them. The ones who were left after that decided they didn’t like it on Earth anymore and moved to Mars. They were supposed to start new lives out there, but it was very tough and eventually they all died as well.”
The children were dumbstruck, one of the twins looked close to tears.
“That’s horrible,” said Melanie.
“Couldn’t the rich people help them?” asked Robbie.
“Well they tried to help, but there were too many of them. That was the problem you see, with all the pollution and disease, there were just too many people in the world.”
The twins started to cry, and Clare signalled to the assistants to comfort them.
“We’re very lucky today, things are much better than they were in those days.” She paused for a moment. “Do any of you know what the word ‘sacrifice’ means?”
The children stared at her blankly.
“Well, it’s when you give something up so someone else can be happy. And that’s what all the poor people did for us. They weren’t forced to fight in the war or to live on Mars. They chose to do it. They knew that it was the only way to make the world a better place. They sacrificed their lives for us and we should never forget that.”
Clare turned to Robbie.
“Robbie. Do you remember when I got angry with you for using the word ‘pleb’?”
“Yes,” he murmured, staring at his hands.
“Well ‘pleb’ is a nasty word for poor people. That’s why I was so angry.” She turned and addressed the children collectively, “you should never use words like that children, not even as a joke. Those people made the ultimate sacrifice for us and we should respect their memory.”
The children nodded emphatically, including Robbie who looked close to tears. After a brief pause she hugged him, then eased herself up on to her feet and brushed the grass off her skirt.
“Okay. Who wants ice cream?”
Within the hour they’d returned to the school. Clare stood by the classroom window watching the children head home.
She felt good. They looked happy again, even the twins. She’d done the right thing and it had paid off. Children are so robust she thought. Perhaps she’d write to the Curriculum Committee with some recommendations, may be even write an academic paper. It could be the swansong of her career.
She’d lose her job of course, that was certain. McIntyre would be furious, not to mention Donovan. But she didn’t care. She’d be twenty-seven at the end of the year, more than ready for retirement. It was time to start focusing on herself again, she’d done her bit. And besides, it wasn’t as if she needed the job.
Nobody needed a job.