Short story
 

The Get-away 

‘Hook worm. What about hook worm? I could lose weight on that, and it’s very easily treatable.’

‘No Laura. No hook worm. No malaria. No broken bones.’

Her expression darkened. I focussed on the backs of my glasses – it’s a trick I used at school when getting a telling off. But these days there’s a lot more to see than the reflection of my eyes.

Laura wasn’t finished. ‘Richard, if one of us doesn’t come back with something no-one will believe we’ve been away. They’ll think we’re too nervous to travel for real and that we haven’t really been away.’

‘Well if real travel means putting up with an assortment of parasites, I’d just as soon step into a holiday booth and have done with it.’

‘It’s not ethical, either, darling. People need our tourist dollars.’

‘They make a hefty sum from licensing their landscapes…’

‘Only the governments, darling. Not the small man. Not the authentic people.’

Good argument about landscape licence money pouring into the government’s pockets, but she lost me on the ‘authentic’. ‘Ah, the friendly natives. Every other person you speak to has been mugged while travelling. I don’t think there’s been a crime yet on a synthetic holiday.’

‘Well it’s so bad for one’s health – two weeks in one of those booths. People get pressure sores and deep vein thrombosis.’

‘They make you come out and walk around every ten hours.’

‘Well that’s not much of a holiday, is it. Anyway, only chavs use holiday booths. Everyone will laugh at us.’

Now we were getting to the crux of the matter. A perfect time away was beyond our reach because it was not something ‘our’ sort of people did. Here’s us at a dinner party.

We are toying with our deserts, which Alison has spent all afternoon making. I’m half listening to the conversation, and half cultivating Mars in my glasses.

‘…he was sweating so much that when I went into the room my glasses steamed up.’ That’s Alison on Jeremy’s malaria, caught in Dar es Salaam.

The robot scratches another hole in the dust and we plant another cactus.

‘They came up behind us and told us not to turn round. I saw them holding a knife to…’ And here are Janey and Bill talking about the time they were mugged in Rio.

‘You didn’t even realise until afterwards, did you Janey, that they were holding a knife to your throat as well.’

I turn the camera to range over my little piece of Mars. At the start of the project, I paid 5,000 euros for the privilege of exclusive rights to this 20-acre plot. It’s been worth every penny.

‘I said to the travel agent, I said: “Quite simply, we feel deceived. That orange juice was definitely canned, not freshly squeezed; and the bathroom was so small it was not even possible for two people to stand in there and clean their teeth.” And I didn’t recognise a single brand of spirit behind the bar.’ This is Ursula – she and Marcus are pursuing a small claims case against their travel agent.

Laura (for once) is listening rather than talking, as we haven’t been away yet; and so are Darren and Tracy-Dianne – they go on booth holiday (they call them holodays), of which they enjoy every moment. They aren’t terribly interesting people, though. They are not quite… They are new money. New money, that’s the phrase. But they give such wonderful children’s parties that we invite them to everything so our tinies don’t get left out.

Night is coming to my Martian field, and the bot’s movements are getting frustratingly sluggish. I make it nod the camera at Earth and then leave it to power down. It’ll start work again as soon as there is enough light to wake its solar panels. Dusk on Mars is one of my favourite times but it is rude of me to not give my full attention to the dinner party.

‘We were thinking of Australia,’ I venture in response to a question from Alison.

‘Hah,’ says Bill. ‘Australia? That’s not very adventurous.’

Darren puts his spoon down: ‘That’s a long flight, isn’t it?’

‘Yes,’ I say. ‘That’s the downside. But it means that it’s worth going for a good long time. We were going to go for a month over Christmas. Darkest time of year and all.’

‘Tracy and I holoed there for a long weekend last month.’

‘What a novel idea,’ says Ursula. ‘How very original of you.’

‘Isn’t it their winter?’

‘Nah,’ says Darren, remembering to dab his moustache his napkin. ‘With a holo one picks one’s season.’

Tracy-Dianne adds: ‘It was a present from Nana, Darren’s mother, I mean. So we had to take it really.’

‘That’s very generous of her,’ I say. ‘Wish our grannies would give us a long weekend away.’

‘Oh it’s really not pricey,’ says Darren. ‘Actually, it was covered by a 5,000 Euro gift certificate. All I had to pony up for was letting Trace loose in E-Mall. That was far more painful, let me tell you.’

I glance at Tracy-Dianne through my glasses, and I can see that on-line she is wearing a scarlet cocktail dress, impossibly supported over her cartoonishly inflated bust. Her avatar gives me a flirtatious wink. Darren is wearing a thong, a medallion and pair of flip-flops. He has not troubled to alter his body at all. I wonder if he forgot to change or whether it’s just a big ‘bugger you’.

*

When Laura is sitting at her dressing table straightening her hair before bed I ask her: ‘Would you like to be let loose in E-Mall? I mean… if you wanted to, if you wanted anything to wear on-line…’ Through my glasses, she is wearing the default white kaftan.

‘No thank you very much,’ she says. ‘Waste of money.’

Unlike, say, going to a backstreet doctor to get yourself infected with hookworm. ‘You know,’ I say, ‘You can… you can get outfits and set them so that only I could see them.’

‘What and appear naked to everyone else?’ She puts on the oversized T-shirt that she has taken to wearing at night and climbs into bed.

‘No, everyone else sees the kaftan – or whatever you want them to see. Come and look at this.’ I bring up a black cocktail dress decorated with sequinned dragons, and hand her the glasses.

She snorts. ‘Can you imagine, acres of mummy fat. Darling, I’m flattered that you think I’m sexy enough to wear this, but I’d feel so ugly.’

I almost tell her that she can get the body to go with it, but stop myself just in time.

She puffs to herself and the bed creaks as she settles. ‘I don’t want to get into all that stuff. I’ve got enough to think about what with the garden and the children and organising this holiday.’

I sit back against the pillows and slip back to Mars – not cultivating this time, but setting the bot’s orders. The programme has given me a choice of five cactuses to plant. I have a set number of each – lots of tough but boring green number ones and fives; and fewer of the sorts with coloured flowers. I am laying the flowering twos, threes and fours out to spell Laura, Richard, Ellie and Jago across the plot. I think it’ll amuse the children. There aren’t quite enough of the orange number threes to finish the ‘rd’ in Richard. It’s quite a puzzle, actually, because the ones that are in the middle of the plot tend to do better – I’m trying to work out a design that minimises cactuses on the edge.

‘Darling… Darling… Do you think you could try to keep still? You are kicking like anything and it’s very disturbing when I’m trying to sleep.’

‘Sorry darling. I’ll go in the spare room.’

‘But come back when you’re ready to sleep, won’t you.’

*

I am standing on a cold and dirty platform waiting for the train to take me to the office and wondering how long it will be before I can work from home via my glasses. All the screen work I can do at home in peace, and the face-to-face work can be done over the net. I picture myself sitting at home in my pyjamas while meeting clients online dressed in a suit designed to flatter my manly physique – not much augmented, but you know, just a touched up to imply boldness, reliability, trustworthiness.

I am about to switch into Mars again, when Jeremy comes up. ‘Morning, Richard.’

We express concern for each other’s wellbeing, and that of our families. Then Jeremy says: ‘We were talking about you last night. Thinking of a boys’ long weekend skiing next month. Hoped you would be our fourth man – fantastic deal for four.’

‘Where?’ I ask. ‘And how much?’

‘Well, that’s the thing,’ says Jeremy, putting a finger to the side of his nose and coming in close. ‘What would you say to 2,000 euros, all in?’

‘Two… I would say “holiday booths”?’

‘We can start the skiing on Thursday night if we like. Ski all day Friday, Saturday, Sunday, Monday. And be back with the family 6pm on Monday. No driving. No busting through the eco-terrorist blockades at the airport. No lift queues. No risk to life and limb.’

I think about this for a moment. ‘I’m in. I’ve always wanted to try a synthetic.’

‘Derek says the only difference is your boots aren’t damp when you get home.’

‘What about equipment?’

‘All supplied. Or bring your own. You know more about that than me.’

‘I was going to say… I’ve got my boots and my skis online already.’

‘How’s that done? Expensive, is it?’

‘Not at all. I’ve been digitising clothes I like for a few years now. Online, I’m still wearing jackets that Laura has thrown out. You can get it done for about 50 euros a piece; or you can come round and we can put your boots and skis on the scanner.’

‘You’ve got your own? Very swank. What else have you got on there? Online wife and kids?

‘The offline lot are enough for me, thank you very much. But I’ve got Champ somewhere in my collection, too.’

Jeremy looks blank.

‘Our wolfhound.’

‘Oh, of course. Our brats were devastated when he died. Can’t imagine what your lot were like. Always hits hardest, the first dog dying.’

And then the train comes. We get on, and I can get back to Mars. On a whim, I whistle for Champ and take him along – he normally sits on my front page, politely greeting visitors, just as he used to sit in our hall. He seems pleased to see me – the digitized copy isn’t brilliant in that respect, as the real Champ was rather grave, and while affectionate, rarely whined and wagged as this Champ does. It was a free programme, though, so I’m not complaining. I could probably tweak some settings somewhere to give him a better personality.

*

Several times during the boys’ skiing weekend I forgot where I was and tried to use my glasses – but they didn’t work. It’s force of habit – I tried to look up the weather, although was always a bright morning following a fresh fall of snow in the night. In quiet moments I would try to switch to Mars.

As Darren said, the skiing is great. A few things seem slightly odd – the way you see people in the distance but never close to. And at the end of the day, I just didn’t feel as tired as I would if I’d really skied that hard. The scenery lacks depth if you are going fast. And twice, the programme decided I wasn’t enjoying a tough run and switched me to a different piste.

On Monday at 4.30pm, we stumbled out of the booths, stinking and unshaven. Putting my glasses on, I discovered a war had broken out in Peru, there had been three cases of cholera in Dorking and that it had been raining steadily since we left. By 6pm, we were home, Laura greeted me with a kiss and an ‘ugh, you smell like you’ve been on a 12-hour flight. Go and have a shower.’

Soon I was sitting in my dressing gown drinking gin and tonic and chatting with the children while Laura bathed them.

Jago, our youngest, climbed on to my knee to be dried, smelling of sweets and bubble bath. ‘Where are Daddy’s glasses?’ he wanted to know. I told him: ‘It’s all the better to see you’, and he shrieked with laughter.

Laura smiled too, but I knew she was thinking that I was making the children rowdy before bedtime.

Later, when we were eating plates of coq au vin and drinking red wine, she said: ‘Would you mind leaving your glasses at home when we go to Australia?’

‘Why?’

‘We don’t need them for information – the hotel will give us everything we need, and our car will have a tourist terminal.’

‘What if I want to check the news here? Or look at my messages?’

‘Darling, you work so hard, and then you spend so much time at home on your glasses – I want this to be a proper holiday.’

‘It’s just the same as having a garden. If I spent all my time on an allotment you wouldn’t complain.’

‘It’s different. You could do an allotment with the children. I hoped you might… you know, give some time to the children.’

‘I’ll think about it,’ I said.

After supper, I said I was tired and went straight to bed. When Laura came up a couple of hours later, she caught me on Mars. The bot was coming to the J in Jago, and I wanted to make sure it was accurate. Laura didn’t say anything, but gave me A Look as I guiltily took off my glasses and put them in the bedside table.

*

Ellie – she’s the other child, our eldest – broke up from school and we tumbled off to the airport. Australia is a long flight for tinies, but Laura and I have always said we wanted to fill them with the best holiday memories. I spent most of the flight with Jago curled up asleep on my lap.

I alternated between dozing and reading a book I had picked up at the airport, leaning the spine on Jago’s shoulder. It’s funny, going into the bookshop at an airport was such a holiday ritual when I was a child. But I haven’t done it for about five holidays now. I bought some picture books, too, that I thought I might read to the children. They didn’t seem very interested though, being more excited by the colouring books and pilot teddy bears brought round by the crew at the start of the flight.

*

On the fifth day, we took a break from doing all the tourist things and rested at the hotel. The children were packed off to a craft session. Laura announced that she was going to an exercise class in the hotel gym. I said I would stay in the room reading my book – I’ve never really liked lying for hours in the sun, so this was readily believed.

I pulled the glasses from the bottom of the suitcase, marvelling at the quantity of clothes I had bought, and set the alarm clock by the bed for an hour. I deserved one hour on Mars. The bot would probably have come to the end of this planting cycle and would be back at the start inspecting. I had lost track of Mars time a bit, but even if it was night on my plot, I could always look over the day’s footage.

I set the bed up with a comfortable pile of cushions at one end, and undressed down to my shorts – I don’t know why, but if possible, I like to be unclothed at home when I’m on Mars. I think it’s because the feeling of real clothes is a bit distracting.

I settled on the bed, almost salivating with anticipation, arranging myself into a good neutral position. I hardly ever get to explore in peace when I’m at home, so a quiet, uninterrupted session would be a real tonic.

Only my glasses wouldn’t work. I couldn’t see anything wrong with them. They weren’t damaged – they just wouldn’t switch on. Perhaps they don’t receive in Australia. I should have checked with the provider before we left.

There was a screen terminal in the room, so I pulled up my provider’s homepage and dug around for technical support, which I eventually found by clicking an icon of a mushroom with ‘Customer Services’ written on it in Braille.

‘How can I help you, sir?’ We discussed my problem and he ran a few tests. ‘Sir, your headset, is it with you in Australia?’

‘Of course. I have it in my hand.’

‘According to my computer, it is not. It is in Manchester, England.’

‘I’m holding…’ The door of the room clicked. Feeling guilty about being rude to the customer support man, and guilty about being caught, I closed the browser as Laura walked in.

‘Whatever are you doing, sitting there in your underpants, looking so guilty? Are you looking at porn?’

Oh good lord. Dry mouth. ‘N…no. Not porn. I was hot, so I thought I’d… have a shower. Only I couldn’t make it work, so I was asking reception.’

‘You made it work last night. Aerobics was cancelled. Actually, I think it’s been cancelled all season, even though it’s mentioned in the brochure. Can’t think why they didn’t tell me that. I’m going down to the pool and I wanted my sunhat. Have you seen it?’

‘I haven’t. Did you unpack it?’

She knelt down and dug around in her enormous suitcase (she brought more clothes than me and children put together). ‘Hey, whatever’s this?’ She pulled out something black and glittery. ‘What is this? I didn’t bring… Richard? Did you pack this? Darling, after I specifically said when you showed me…’

‘What?’

‘This dress.’ She got to her feet and held the black dress with sequinned dragons on it. ‘Darling, it was sweet of you to buy it for me, and I really appreciate the thought, but I did say, didn’t I, that it really wouldn’t look nice on me.

‘I didn’t… I showed it to you on-line… I didn’t buy it for you.’

‘Where’s it from? All that beading – it must have cost a fortune. If I hang it up and wrap it carefully to bring it home, perhaps they’ll take it back and I can choose something else that you’ll like just as much.’

‘I didn’t buy it,’ I said again.

 ‘Well I didn’t buy it for myself. Of course I know you bought it, don’t be silly. Fancy letting it get all crushed in the bottom of the case like that.’ She put it on a coathanger in the wardrobe.

Then there was a tap at the door. ‘Daddy, daddy, let me in.’

‘Ellie?’ Laura opened the door. Ellie pushed in and wrapped herself round her mother’s waist.

‘Mummy, Jago wouldn’t stay with the craft lady. He went in the garden and I’m frightened of ghost dogs…’

‘What? Where’s Jago gone?’

‘The garden. Please make him go back with me. He wouldn’t come when I told him and I’m frightened to look where he’s hiding with the ghost dog. I told him I did I said you’ve got to go back…’ Ellie’s voice faded as Laura hurried off with her in tow.

I went back to the computer terminal to get hold of technical support again. But the site was down. I wondered if I could buy some pay-as-you-go glasses; or if the hotel had any I could borrow…I was about to ring reception and was framing the question when I had one of those moments when you really see yourself. I was ridiculous. Laura was right. I was getting far too obsessed with Mars. Obsessed.

To prove I wasn’t, I put my trousers back down and flopped down on the bed to read my book in peace.

*

The connecting door makes a little scraping noise as it opens, and I heard it because I was lying awake, pretending I was cultivating Mars. A little figure in a white nightie scuttled to my side of the bed and whispered: ‘Daddy, are you awake?’

‘Mmm.’

‘Daddy, Jago is Playing With The Ghost Dog In Our Room.’ She was using her special voice for reporting sibling mischief. ‘Daddy, I’m frightened.’

‘There are no ghosts, Ellie, he’s playing a pretending game. Boys do that.’

She tugged at the covers. ‘Daddy, he’s not pretending because I can see the Ghost Dog and it licked my hand.’

‘Well it’s a real dog then.’ How on earth had Jago smuggled a dog into the hotel room? Clever little devil. ‘It had better go back to its owner, who is probably missing it. I’ll come and see.’ I creaked out of bed.

Laura was waking up by this time. ‘What’s happening? What’s going on?’

‘Bad dreams. I’m dealing with it.’ I felt very paternal.

I shut the connecting door behind me, and turned on the light. Jago was sleeping on the edge of his bed, because most of the space was taken up by a large dog. ‘Come on boy,’ I said, reaching for the collar. ‘You can’t stay here. Out you go. See, Ellie, it’s a real dog, as live as you and me.’

‘Daddy, that is a ghost dog. Don’t you even recognise Champ?’

‘It’s not Champ.’ But it was. There was no denying it – I recognised the white hairs on his back feet, and the rip in his ear where he caught it on a fence. ‘Hallo, boy,’ I said. He whined and wagged. ‘It’s not Champ, Ellie,’ I said. ‘It’s another wolfhound. A different one.’ He followed me into the corridor. I went back into the children’s room, shutting the door behind me.

‘See, a real dog that looks like Champ. I know you miss him, Ellie. I do too.’

Ellie gave me a look of deep disappointment.

Jago woke up and looked sleepily at me. ‘Champ comes when I whistle. Look.’ After a couple of false starts, he managed a whistle, and Champ did indeed bound through the door – the closed door.

Ellie screamed. ‘Ghost Dog.’ And adding to the confusion, Laura came through the connecting door. ‘What’s going… Champ?’

‘Darling… it’s… there’s been a mistake with booking holiday.’

*

‘Laura, none of this is real. The flight – it wasn’t real. I can’t work out when we went into the booths. It might have been on the flight. They drugged us and flew us to… probably Manchester or somewhere. I don’t know where we are…’

We were sitting up in our bed, our finally-gone-to-sleep children curled up on either side of us.

‘Manchester?’

‘Laura, we’re in serious trouble. I don’t know how we can escape from this… if they find out that we know they’ve duped us, they might kill us…’

‘Let’s just keep quiet about what we know, and wait for the end of the programme. It’s comfortable enough here… In three weeks’ time, they’ll let us go home.’

‘Laura, we can’t. Everything we thought was secure is not. They’re probably draining our bank accounts right now… using our identities to do… to do I don’t know what. Where the hell did you book this holiday?’

‘There was an ad in the paper. I thought it was for a company Janey recommended. But after I booked, I mentioned it to her, and she’d never heard of them.’

‘I’m going down to reception to ask them to let you and the children go.’

‘Darling, wait. You said they would kill us… Think this through. You need to think, and you’re panicking.’

‘I’m not panicking. I am thinking. The first thing I’m going to do is stop our money. That might make the police come and check on us…’

‘How do we do that? I haven’t set anything up for online…’

‘Oh Laura… I did tell you months ago.’

‘I hardly ever go online and I certainly don’t shop there.’

‘We’ll do mine at least.’ I got out of bed and went into the bathroom so as not to wake the children. I took my right foot in my left hand and pinched my right earlobe between my left thumb and finger. ‘Pepper pot Iolanthe simian Socrates Nabokov Kant.’

There was a difficult pause during which we both wondered if anything would happen. And then a face wearing a headset appeared in midair. ‘Banking Incorporated online emergency service. Can I help?’

‘Oh thank god you’re here. We’re trapped in a synthetic holiday and I need to cancel all debits from my account.’

‘I’ll have to take a few security details from yourself.’

‘There isn’t time… we’re in danger.’

‘I really can’t assist yourself if you don’t do what I ask.’

So we went through the maiden names of the last three generations of my maternal relations.

‘Thank you, Mr Richard Jones. I’ve blocked that account for yourself.’

‘Will the police be informed?’

‘The Data Protection Act won’t allow me to. Sorry about that.’

‘We need help. We’re trapped…’

‘Is there anything else I can do for you? I was wondering if you would be interested in a deal on travel insur…’

I closed the application.

Next I tried Emergencies Direct – the advice line for the British Emergency services. ‘Sir, being on holoday is not an emergency. I would suggest that you contact your travel agent.’

‘But they’ve got our…’

‘Thank you for your call.’ And the head disappeared.

I hoped this was not a real Emergencies Direct response, and that whoever was holding us had put this hack on to block an obvious escape route.

Travel insurance next. ‘Sir, you are in England. Under the terms of your travel insurance, we can only offer assistance while you are abroad.’

‘But we thought we were going to Australia. We’ve been kidnapped and we’re in a holoday we didn’t book…’

‘I do apologise on behalf of TravelTect and HDV Assurances sir, but I am not able to help at this time.

*

I eventually fell asleep as the sun was coming up. Laura shook me awake what seemed like minutes later.

‘Darling, our bodies. We’ve got to make them let us wake up and move around.’

‘What?’

‘Pressure sores, deep vein thrombosis. We won’t survive three weeks like this.’

‘What?’

‘Stop saying what. This is serious.’

The hotel receptionist seemed as good a person to ask as any.

But she wasn’t real – she didn’t understand what I wanted and just kept offering free drink vouchers. ‘I hope you will accept these vouchers by way of apology.’

‘I want us to go home, now.’

‘Sir, take these vouchers.’

‘Damn it, someone must be listening.’

‘Sir, take these vouch…’

*

Next we tried trashing the hotel room – the kids loved pulling down the curtains and throwing the TV off the balcony. Laura was a bit more hesitant when I asked her to slash the pillows with the nailfile from her manicure set. Anyway, it didn’t work. One moment we were standing in the middle of a scene that would have made a rock band proud; the next it was all back to normal.

‘It’s breakfast time now,’ Jago told me, climbing on to my lap. ‘Growing children must have regular meals.’

‘I suppose,’ I said. Of course, we didn’t have to eat because the booths should be giving us everything we need. But it’s included in a synthetic holiday because… well what’s travelling without the food? We went down to the dining room to give the children some sort of routine.

‘Good morning,’ said the elderly couple who had the table next to ours.

‘Good morning,’ I replied. ‘Did you know this isn’t real, that we are actually in booths, probably in Manchester?’

‘Oh dear,’ said the man whose name Laura knows, but I don’t. ‘Perhaps if you ask at reception they’ll replace it for you.’

‘Are you real?’

‘Doesn’t the pool look inviting,’ said the wife, who I do remember is called Edna. I’d never forget an Edna.

‘We’re off home tomorrow,’ said the man. ‘Back to Tring. It’ll be good to see what’s changed in the garden while we’ve been away.’

‘You’re either in denial or not real,’ I said.

‘I’m looking forward to English milk. Wherever you go in the world, the milk’s always different, and it’s never as nice,’ remarked Edna.

I sat back with my pretend coffee and my pretend orange juice. ‘Since this isn’t real, I don’t have to worry about my cholesterol. I’m having a huge fry-up,’ I announced.

‘Richard, not in front of the children. Darling, don’t do that.’ This was to Jago who was putting a bread roll into his cup of hot chocolate.

‘Since this isn’t real, I don’t have to worry about my choclesterol.’ The chocolate slopped over the saucer and on to the tablecloth. A waiter came up and flicked at the stain with a napkin. It disappeared as if it had never been.

‘They’re not even bothering to pretend this is real now,’ I whispered to Laura.

‘Daddy, if I wee in the pool now it’s not real, does it matter?’ This was Ellie. I had told her off on the first day of the holiday for arguing with Jago about this.

 ‘Yes, it does. It’s a bad habit.’

‘What if I pretend to wee in the pretend pool and actually do?’ Jago wanted to know.

‘You’ll both be beaten. Now finish your breakfasts.’

*

Back upstairs we silenced the children with a cartoon in their room. I stretched out on the bed, not wanting to do anything in case I missed some escape route.

Laura, to my surprise, began to unpack her suitcase. ‘What are you doing?’ I asked her.

‘Unpacking – it makes me feel like I’m doing something useful. Besides, I might have packed something that can help… Darling, you know that dress with the dragons, and Champ… they’re from your glasses, aren’t they?’

‘They are from my online space, yes.’

‘Well how did they get here?’

‘I… er… I’m not sure… I tried to use my glasses yesterday…’ I waited for the ‘Darling you did say…’

‘And that might have something to do with it? Things from your space leaking through?’ She opened my suitcase and clothes that we hadn’t packed exploded out of it. ‘These aren’t your real clothes, are they? Did you save these online at some point?’

I pick out my suede jacket; and the gardening fleece that Laura threw away last Christmas. ‘Yes. Yes I did.’

‘Well can you access your Mars game?’

‘I don’t know… I kept getting interrupted every time I tried to.’

‘Darling, you did say… but anyway we can go on Mars and it’ll make us move around, won’t it?’

‘I don’t know…’

‘You always wobble and grunt when you’re playing Mars.’

‘It’s not playing,’ I explained, ‘It’s cultivating. ‘Mars Cultivator is using my brainpower to help terraform the planet. And I don’t grunt. Or wobble.’

‘Yes you do. But that’s the point – it’ll make us move around in the booths or whatever, and we won’t get wasted muscles.’

So I made the shortcut movement to launch Mars Cultivator. Everything went dark for a second and then I was standing on Mars. I walked the bot up and down for a bit and then came back out. ‘It works. Want a go?’

‘Can’t we all go together?’

‘No we can’t – the licence only allows one person at a time.

‘Well we can go one at a time then. Show me the dance.’

‘Right, well first, to get out of the programme, you clap your hands three times. And you don’t have to move as much as you think you do.’ Beginners online always make exaggerated movements. ‘Now, to go in: put your left foot on your right foot. No, other way round. And wave your arms in a circle.’

And she was in. She (or rather her avatar) was slack-faced and limp. She didn’t kick or twitch, but she did flicker at one point, which gave me a very odd feeling. I turned to look out of the window so I wouldn’t see her do it again. A few minutes passed.

Then she came out and said: ‘I don’t see what all the fuss is about, frankly. They ought to pay you for doing the Mars Programme’s boring donkey work.’

‘Do you think it’s making you move, though?’

‘It’s worth a try, isn’t it? You’ve spelt Laura with three As, by the way. And why are you planting cactuses?’

‘It helps improve the soil and add oxygen to the air.

‘Very technical. Do you think Ellie would like a go? Ellie?’ she called through the communicating door. ‘Ellie, come and have a go on Daddy’s game.’

‘Mars is boring.’

I’d let her have a short go when I’d first got it, and it hadn’t made much of an impression.

‘Darling you need to do it for exercise,’ explained Laura. ‘Now go in and walk up to the end of the first field and then clap your hands three times to come out.’

‘Don’t tread on the flowers,’ I told her. ‘And you don’t have to move as much as you think you do.’

Ellie went slack, and we waited. She flickered, too.

‘Did you see that?’ Laura asked. ‘What happened?’

‘You did it too. I’m sure it’s quite safe.’ And then Ellie disappeared entirely.

There was a pause while we waited for her to come back. But she didn’t.

And then I acted without stopping to explain myself. She wasn’t in Mars, because the programme let me in. I windmilled wildly, kicking up my feet and letting the bot trample furrows, irrigation hoses, cactuses and fences.

Then the light changed and I was pushing my way out of a holobooth. I could hear Ellie screaming – not a painful scream, more a sort of ‘I’ll scream if I want to’ scream.

‘Please stop screaming. You’re safe. Mum and Dad will be here in a minute. We’re waking them up. Look, I’ve got sweeties?’ Someone with filthy matted hair was kneeling down next to Ellie, who was still dressed in the clothes she had been wearing when we left home. He was offering her a stick of chewing gum.

‘Ellie, it’s OK,’ I said, my voice rusty from disuse. She made a beeline for me and wrapped herself around my legs.

A woman wearing a white coat and a good handful of jewellery in her face offered me a blanket. ‘Take this, Mr Jones. You’ll probably feel a bit shivery. We’re brewing up – do you take sugar.’

‘No. Where’s my wife? And where’s my son?’

‘There and there.’ She pointed to two occupied holobooths. ‘We’re waking them up in the proper manner.’ She sounded as if she disapproved of people like me and Ellie who used the vandalism protection on Mars Cultivator to bust out of unwanted holodays.

‘I think I’m owed an explanation.’ I used a voice that was far more secure and firm than I felt.

‘We’re Gaia Love – ecoprotectionists. Trying to stop people from taking un-necessary flights.’ She sounded almost apologetic. ‘Why don’t you come through to the re-orientation suite.’

‘By kidnapping them and putting them in… By misrepresenting…’

‘It’s worked for all these people.’ There were about twenty other occupied booths in the room. ‘They don’t know they’re not in Australia. The reorientation suite is this way.’

‘I’m not…’ how pointless to protest by refusing to do something for my own comfort. ‘I’d like to see my wife and son wake up, and we’ll go through together.’

*

‘…and it was about three in the morning by the time the police had finished with us.’

‘How awful for you. Those ecoterrorists are too much. Did I tell you that last week…’ Jane is about to launch into the story of how she had her 4x4 keyed, but Bill interupts with: ‘When’s it coming up in court again?’

‘January.’

‘And you really didn’t notice for five days?’

Laura is a bit defensive. ‘Well of course there were a few things that seemed odd – the receptionist kept saying it was going to rain soon when it clearly was not; and the orange juice tasted most peculiar. That and the aerobics classes being cancelled. Because of course, they can’t have people making unusual movements that will activate the emergency services. Richard wouldn’t have noticed at all. He’s so used to being on-line that it all seems real to him, doesn’t it Richard?

I smile and move my head non-commitally.