Be careful what you wish for

Your local electronics store has just started selling time machines, anywhere doors, and invisibility helmets. You can only afford one. Which of these do you buy, and why?

Hmm, this is an interesting one. Revealing an imagination shortfall on my part of which I am rather ashamed. I mean, everyone’s heard of Time Machines but I must admit I had never even conceived of an Invisibility Helmet or an Anywhere Door – and I should have done, having read all those Harry Potters.

My granny used to say Be careful what you wish for (because you just might get it). At the time I didn’t understand. Later I thought it might be nice to get what I wished for at least once in my life, just to test the theory out. Still waiting.

It comes from Aesop’s Fables, I believe. The story of the Tortoise and the Eagle:

A TORTOISE, lazily basking in the sun, complained to the sea-birds of her hard fate, that no one would teach her to fly. An Eagle, hovering near, heard her lamentation and demanded what reward she would give him, if he would take her aloft and float her in the air. “I will give you,” she said, “all the riches of the Red Sea.” “I will teach you to fly then,” said the Eagle; and taking her up in his talons he carried her almost to the clouds, – when suddenly letting her go, and she fell on a lofty mountain and dashed her shell to pieces. The Tortoise exclaimed in the moment of death: “I have deserved my present fate; for what had I to do with wings and clouds, who can with difficulty move about on the earth?”

The time has come to pick a gadget, since there isn’t room to ramble on about the relative merits and demerits of all three. Hmm, how to choose. I’d dearly love all three…

I’d be a trifle wary of the Time Machine, I think. I can imagine things going wrong with dials and levers – especially with me at the helm – and ending up in the Stone Age instead of the Seventeenth Century. There is also the matter of culture shock. The past sounds fascinating and romantic to my reasonably healthy, independent, well-nourished self – and from here – my nice warm office. But remember – no doctors – someone with a jar of leaches if you’re lucky – meat and no veg a lot of the time (permanent constipation) – toothache and no dentists, just someone in a fairground or marketplace with a pair of pliers and a jeering audience. Being female I’d be subject to all manner of servitude and discrimination, for most of the past. Then there’s endless pregnancy, and midwives who didn’t know what a germ was, so didn’t wash their hands.

I do quite like the idea of an invisibility helmet. I wonder what it would look like. Probably it’d have little decorative wings, like the one Hermes wore. With that in place I could be a fly on the wall – anywhere. I could slip into number 10 in the wake of the Downing Street cat, and eavesdrop on cabinet meetings. I could be lurking unseen while people were talking about me. Which would inevitably mean finding out a lot of things I never wanted to know. The only trouble is with the Helmet – you’ve still got to get there. I mean, to get any real use from an Invisibility Helmet you’d have to spend a lot of tedious time travelling – catching the bus to your relatives or the train to London. You would be dodging the fare, of course.

Which only leaves the Anywhere Door. If I could only afford one of the three, that’s the one I’d pick. I have this secret fantasy destination – an island with white sand, a stout rope hammock slung between two palm trees (it would have to be stout if I was going to lounge in it – and so would the palm trees). Somewhere below the hammock, but within arm-reaching distance, a pile of paperback books. All the really good paperback books I haven’t had time to read yet. And every now and then some barefoot someone would pad down from a beachside bar to bring me another tall orange juice with a plastic umbrella in it. With an Anywhere Door, that would be achievable. Just one step and – aloha! No airports, no queues at customs, no time – just instant place. With an Anywhere Door I could do all the travelling I meant to do but didn’t. I could travel the world and then – one step and I’m back in the living room watching Star Trek.

Knowing me, though, I’d forget where I left the door and be trapped forever in – wherever – my tropical paradise, sailing a luxury yacht in the Mediterranean or half way along the Great Wall of China.

Ah well, I can think of worse outcomes.


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