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School Project

Robert Bagnall was born in a doubly-landlocked English county when the Royal Navy still issued a rum ration, but now lives by the sea in Devon. He is the author of the science fiction thriller 2084: The Meschera Bandwidth and around fifty published short stories, twenty-four of which are collected in the anthology 24 0s & a 2. Both are available on Amazon. Three of his stories have also appeared in NewCon Press' annual Best of British Science Fiction anthologies. He blogs at meschera.blogspot.com and can be contacted there.

My granddaughter is a pupil here. That's why I've agreed to help. They've put me in Miss Nerhu's office. It looks over the ribbon of parched grass that rings the school, to the embankment of buddleia and sycamore growing wild beyond. There's a hint of sandalwood and I wonder whether it's air freshener or the remnants of Miss Nehru's perfume when I realize my interrogator has arrived.
She's a bright, breezy mid-teen, with long straight chestnut hair and a habit of cocking her head like a bird and then needing to flick her tresses away. I thought there was a uniform--perhaps its optional?--school is so much more enlightened than in my day.
Without looking up from her tablet, she explains her project is to look at life fifty years ago.
"I was... ah... twenty-three."
"Oh no," she says, straight-faced, catching my eye for the first time. "I mean today."
"Oh." And then it dawns on me. It's role play. Miss Nehru has them projecting into the future, being two generations further on looking back on their own grandchildren. And the stroke of genius: interviewing grandparents. I make a mental note to write a letter of praise to the governors.
"Is it true the internet is free?" No preliminaries, just straight in.
I start to explain freedom is relative, that there is freedom to say things on the internet versus freedom not to have untrue things said about you, and what freedom of speech means in practice, when she interrupts me.
"No, I mean is it true you don't pay each time you click on a page?"
I smirk. That's how it used to be, sort of, but data became so cheap as to be free. Why would we go backwards? Miss Nehru needs to explain the march of progress to her charges. I recall a great example about the falling cost of a candela over the ages....
"My Dad says it's because they got everybody hooked on the internet and then charged us for what we couldn't live without. And taps. Do you still get water from them? I mean, everyday?"
"Yes," I say carefully. "Don't you?"
"It's just gone down from three to two days a week. A man on our street was beaten for hoarding. He lost an eye."
There's a dystopian edge to this girl's imagination I find troubling. I try haughty. "Where are you going with these questions, young lady? You seem to have an agenda."
She chews her lip for a moment, composing her response. I'm impressed: there's a combative maturity about her, a desire to hold her own.
"I guess, what I don't get, is you're living in the 2020s, the greatest age ever known to Mankind, you're still able to kick every big problem down the road, whereas where I'm from there is no road left to kick the can down, and I'd sort of expected everybody here to be having some sort of big irresponsible, selfish party, not caring about the next morning, because you won't have to sort out the mess. Because you've left sorting out the mess to my generation, and it's the kind of mess you only get after a big irresponsible, selfish party. So, why are you all so stressed and miserable when you're living in a golden age on borrowed time? Why aren't you all drunk and partying? You may as well, given how it all turns out."
Quite a speech.
"Well, I'm not sure if I agree with everything you say. We're trying to deal with climate change--"
"Without changing your lifestyles a little whilst you can--better to make others change theirs a lot when they have no choice?"
I bristle. The girl's crossed a line into argumentative. I must have words with Miss Nehru. "Well, what about Covid? We've only recently emerged from a pandemic. We're hardly in a mood to party."
She tells me Covid killed six million, but ten times as many die each year from famine and in the Water Wars....
"Water Wars?"
"Seventeen nations have been declared unfit for human habitation so far. They're too hot, if they're not underwater. Ten billion people with only half the livable space on the planet you had. That's what we've inherited."
Angered, I close my eyes to clear my mind, refocus, take a moment before I say something inappropriate. I remind myself I'm the adult in the room.
It's Miss Nehru's voice, her hand on my shoulder. I open my eyes.
"It took me a while to track her down."
My interrogator has gone. Miss Nehru's smile carries a subtext--let's pretend we didn't notice you'd fallen asleep. Next to her a bovine girl struggles with a clipboard.
"I leave you with Chelsea," Miss Nehru says and departs, confirming sandalwood as her perfume of choice.
The girl slumps into the chair opposite, her summer dress straining. I suspect her parents want it to get through the school year, to defer buying new until the autumn. She brandishes her clipboard, takes a mental run-up at her first question and asks, in a nasal monotone, "What's your favorite pudding?"
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, March 29th, 2022
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