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Fiction & Poetry | Magazine

Save Us | Winner of Peaceful Dumpling Environmental Writing Prize

With a long string of accolades to her name—not just all those Thirty Under Thirty lists but the glowing Forbes profile, the bestselling book she authored last year, the TEDx talk with 100 million views—I admit I was intimidated by Lucy Gettings before we even met. As we chat over CBD lattes in the juice bar of Unspoiled Tours’ achingly hip, warehouse-like office, she radiates an almost overpowering aura of competence and self-belief. Her jet-black hair is perfectly coiffed; her heels are towering; her phone never stops ringing and she answers every call, often pausing mid-sentence to do so, before continuing her train of thought without missing a beat.

As she tilts a reusable bottle of imported water, it’s clear that Gettings enjoys the fruits of her success. But she’s more than just another time-travel entrepreneur, and Unspoiled Tours is more than her brainchild and her life’s work: to Gettings, her startup is a force for good.

What makes Unspoiled stand out (besides the distinctly high-end price tag) is its unique focus on the impact of climate change. Unspoiled’s trips to the past take in some of the planet’s bygone treasures at their most glorious. But when I use the word “nostalgia” to characterize these getaways, Gettings is quick to correct me.

“It’s not about passively visiting the past, just to reminisce,” she avers, leaning the fingertips of both hands on the table between us as she emphasizes her point. “There are a dozen different tour companies taking people to the Victorian seaside, or whatever. Do we want our guests to enjoy themselves? Sure. But more than that, we aim to inspire them. It’s not about living in the past: it’s about the inspiration to transform the present.”

Rainey drops the magazine on the scuffed seat next to her as the minibus drags itself to a halt with a series of unhappy noises. Some of these creaks and groans come from the ancient machinery of the van itself; some from its passengers, as they prise and unstick themselves from the seats to gather their jackets and bags and sleep-scattered minds. The journey from the youth hostel hasn’t been long, but it’s early.

Rainey kneels up on her seat to pull down her threadbare backpack from the rack above. When she turns around the magazine is gone. Melanie has seized it, as the short, ragged queue to get off the van staggered its way past Rainey’s seat, and up ahead she is making a thing of it. Melanie is always making a thing of things.

“On the way back, right,” she said, loudly—she says everything loudly. “We should play a drinking game with this interview, right? ‘Cos we know what it says without even looking at it, right?” She is blocking other people from getting off, waving the glossy pages with their tight close-up on the poreless porcelain face of their boss’s boss’s boss’s boss.

“They mention her shiny black hair? DRINK. Gettings makes a joke about how she’s like Hermione from Harry Potter because she time-travels so much? DRINK.” The driver has already gotten off the bus, and Rainey is getting impatient, but the rest of them are joining in—there is something about Melanie that makes people want to respond when she calls out.

“Gettings tells greenwashing liiiiies about all the environmental projects she’s supposedly investing in?” Melanie almost sings, and the group chants “DRINK!”

“But if we had a drink for every question they ask about her tour guides’ working conditions?” she says, and as the tour guides all chant “NO DRINK” she smiles in triumph, turns on her heel, steps down from the minibus.

Rainey smiles too, but she doesn’t say anything. She knows how Melanie feels about Lucy Gettings. Rainey’s own feelings on the subject are more complicated. Should Gettings pay them all more? Sure she should. But does Rainey hope to be a rich, powerful boss like her someday? Sure she does.

But she doesn’t say anything, either, when she gets down from the van to find Melanie waiting by the step. She’s taken out her clipboard.

“Still time to sign the petition, comrades,” Melanie is saying to the rest of the group. “Sign the petition, get recognition!” She has this slogan on a little badge on her hat.

As the lead tour guide, Rainey is supposed to report Melanie for wearing political accessories at work. Unofficially, she is supposed to report her for trying to organize a trade union, too. But even more unofficially, Rainey doesn’t think Melanie is doing anything wrong. She’s annoying, and she’s too loud. But she’s just trying to make things better.

So Rainey doesn’t say anything—but she hasn’t signed Melanie’s petition, either, and so almost none of the tour guides have signed it. It’s a point of contention between them. Melanie says the difference between the two of them is that Melanie is trying to change the system, and Rainey is trying to change herself so she can survive in it. Rainey thinks, but doesn’t say: what’s wrong with wanting to survive?

“I need this job,” is all she will say to Melanie on the subject. “I’m trying to save up.”

“We’re all trying to save up,” Melanie reminds her, and Rainey knows it’s true.

Now, standing in the courtyard of the hotel with its white walls glaring in the hot sun, Rainey rolls her head on her neck to ease some of the tension from the bus ride, then makes her way to the front of the knot of tour guides. She gives them a minute, watching them swig nausea suppressant and rinse out their mouths with water and smear themselves with sunscreen. Cleo is touching up her lipstick; Scotty is running through vocal warm-ups. Sarah, the new girl with the accent Rainey can’t quite place, is looking nervous, and Rainey pauses to make eye contact with her, gives her an encouraging wink.

New starters come along a lot. Rainey has been in this job for two years, which is almost as long as Unspoiled Tours has existed. She and Melanie started on the same day, and no-one else has been here as long as them. But if you can hack it for a month—which not everyone does—then you’re an established member of the group, like you’ve been here forever. The group travels together, eats together, shares the same room in each crappy youth hostel. Rainey can’t keep track of where everyone is from—they pick up new starters all over the world—but she knows who is sleeping with whom, what everyone’s mother’s name is or was, what they’re saving up for. There’s no paid time off, so almost no-one goes home to see their family: they just work, and sooner or later they quit, or worse.

Rainey will quit when she’s saved up enough money to do what she wants to do. That’s the official plan. The unofficial plan is that she’ll shine enough in this job that she’ll keep getting promoted until one day she’s a successful woman like Lucy Gettings, not to mention rich. Rainey knows exactly what she’d do with that kind of money. She thinks she could get used to that kind of life.

Now, Rainey gives Melanie a look until she puts away her clipboard, takes a deep breath, and then bangs her hands together twice to get everyone’s attention.

“Okay, my tour guide rock stars,” she says, “it is almost showtime! Let’s get our game faces on, get in there, show these guys the time of their lives, and earn ourselves a bunch of tips. Are we ready?”

There is a dim chorus of mumbling.

“Those aren’t the voices of my rock stars, guys. Those are not tip-earning voices. Are we ready?”

This time she gets more of a ragged cheer. Good enough. Rainey leads the team inside.

In the hotel the guests are gathered at the marble bar, finishing off their pre-trip shots of nausea suppressant, signing their Unspoiled Tours consent forms. They’re ticking the boxes to say they won’t bring any plants, animals or humans back to the present with them, or otherwise “avoidably alter the past.” Rainey scans the group, mentally assigning her team among them. There are two couples, one family, and a few solo travelers.

She stops. She has unexpectedly spotted a face she recognizes, and although it takes her a moment to place this older woman, she soon remembers where she knows her from. She was a guest on a previous trip, of course—where else does Rainey meet anyone, let alone anyone who moves in the kind of circles that their guests do?—and she’s British, and her name is…

“Diane,” Rainey says, beaming into the guest’s face, as though there is no-one in the world she would be more delighted to see.

Rainey is great with names, but she might have remembered Diane and Steve in any case.

It was one of the first trips Rainey had ever worked: a ski trip. Twenty-two years ago, on their honeymoon, Diane and Steve had gone skiing at a resort that was no longer there; two years ago, Rainey had taken them back. Not just to there, but to then: she’d taken them on the exact same holiday.

Diane had booked the trip sometime after their present-day marriage had begun to disintegrate. Rainey certainly hadn’t asked for details, and she’d been quietly enjoying piecing them together from what she’d heard—the children both off at university; the woman Steve had become close to at work—until Steve trudged off, with his bulky camera around his neck, to take a picture of a bird he had misidentified in a tree, and Diane took all the challenge out of it by simply telling Rainey why they were there and then. That when she’d heard about Unspoiled Tours, it was the first thing she’d thought of doing.

“I think this will save us,” Diane told Rainey, simply. “People always tell you that you can’t recapture the magic of those early years, that when it’s gone it’s gone…But it’s right here! We can see it!”

She was gesturing to a spot barely twenty feet away, where the younger Diane and the younger Steve were in the queue for the ski lift. They weren’t making a spectacle of themselves but when you made the effort to look you could see how in love they seemed to be, and although Rainey was really making the effort not to look, the sidelong glances she could see were sort of beautiful. The way young Diane looked up into young Steve’s face. The way young Steve returned her look, and dotted kisses onto her chunky ski hat like they were snowflakes. They were perfectly self-contained in their happiness—it was a happiness that had nothing to do with anyone else—and yet Rainey didn’t think Diane’s plan was so crazy. It made sense that anyone looking at that happiness would want to keep it. And Steve seemed to agree too.

“This is wonderful,” he said, as he came back to join them, and he put his arm around present-day Diane as the two of them got in the queue for the chairlift, standing behind the happy, oblivious, twenty-two-year-old Diane and Steve.

Today, Rainey escorts Diane out of the hotel for the transport to the marina. Not the stinking, creaking bus the tour guides arrived in: like a pumpkin swapped for a carriage, its space in the grounds of the hotel is now filled with a fleet of air-conditioned 4x4s. They are sleek and black as predatory cats and, to Rainey’s expert eye, just the wrong side of ostentatiously expensive to be tasteful.

The cars move off. Rainey is sitting up front with the driver and Sarah; Diane is in the back, leaning back in her seat with her eyes closed. The sun is long since up and baking hot, but once they’re in the traffic, the smog is thick and grey; it envelops them, as does the dull roar of the highway. If you don’t think about how much filth is in the air surrounding you, the effect is peaceful; intimate. The flimsy film of privacy reminds Rainey a little of the many nights she spent watching her mother die, with the curtains drawn around her hospital bed. The muted light and noise remind her a little of a much earlier memory: the one morning in her childhood when she woke up to snow.

These days, of course, the only way to see snow is to go back in time.

They pull up at the marina and Diane opens her eyes.

“I’m so happy to see that you’re still doing this job, Rainey,” she says. “You’re so lucky to be able to do this every day.”

Rainey pouts a ‘can’t believe my luck’ smile, inclines her head, says “I know, I know!” The guests expect it.

“And I want to thank you again for the wonderful time you showed Steve and I, on our second honeymoon,” Diane goes on. “You really gave us both the time-travel bug.”

“Steve enjoyed it? I am so glad!”

“Oh yes, he loved it. I’ve lost count of the number of trips he’s made since then – oh, not with Unspoiled, I’m afraid. He’s been revisiting the scenes of his youth! It’s his new favorite hobby.”

With that she jumps out of the car, excited to get onto the yacht. Rainey pauses to take an anxiety pill, chases it with a shot of nausea suppressant, offers both to Sarah. Rainey knows, and mechanically often says, that she is lucky to be able to travel backwards through time almost every day. But when she’s actually doing that traveling she doesn’t feel lucky: she feels wretched.

The air is clearer here. The white yachts are waiting for their guests like ducks waiting to be fed, bobbing and noisy with engines and the crew, also waiting, displayed on the deck, all smiles and tans and crisp uniforms. The tour guides all have plenty of experience as unofficial yacht crew—and unofficial ski instructors, and unofficial sherpas; they’ve had rudimentary training and just about every sport rich people like—but that’s not what they’re paid for. Traveling back in time can be dangerous. Rainey is here to make sure Diane does it safely, and without breaking the rules, and that she enjoys herself. Sarah is here because she’s learning how to do all of that as well as Rainey does.

The crew nod at Rainey and Sarah and welcome Diane onto the yacht. It’s fancy, like a 20-metre floating hotel. A steward begins to fuss over Diane as they make preparations to leave; Rainey and Sarah wave to their friends who are disappearing inside the other boats.

The yacht spews noise and smoke as it begins to move, but Diane is nestled far inside the vessel like a pearl inside a shell. She’s watching one of the promotional videos Gettings tries to incorporate in all the Unspoiled trips: Rainey can hear its muted, familiar cadences from the deck above, where she is standing with Sarah. She is talking Sarah through what is not yet a panic attack, but could turn into one.

“Breathe,” Rainey says to Sarah. “See my hands?” She opens and closes her palms like flowers, slowly, counting in her head. “Breathe like this.”

When Sarah has her breathing under control, Rainey says, “I promise you that if you do the trip you’ll be okay, because I’ll be there with you. But you don’t have to do it if you’re not ready.”

“Will I get fired?”

“I promise you won’t. Nobody has to know if you sit today out. We can take you out again tomorrow or the day after and you can make the trip then. No-one is going to make you do anything you don’t want to do.”

“No, no, I want to do it, I do want to,” Sarah protests, and behind the panic in her voice is something else that Rainey recognizes. Rainey waits, and Sarah says, “I won’t get paid for today if I don’t do the trip.”

“No,” says Rainey, softly. “What are you saving for?”

“I need to make my own trip,” says Sarah, and Rainey nods. If you didn’t start your career with Unspoiled because you wanted to make your own trip, it would be your ambition soon enough.

“Where and when?” Rainey says.

Sarah looks over her shoulder, but Diane is still downstairs and the crew are all busy. “I need to get my baby,” she says.

The idea that someone as baby-faced as Sarah has a baby of her own seems impossible, but Rainey has heard everything before. Making the trip is expensive enough, but bringing someone back with you is so difficult—not least because it’s illegal—that you have to be very rich or very desperate.

“My baby,” Sarah says again. “I couldn’t feed her.”

Rainey nods again. “My mother,” she tells Sarah in return. “She couldn’t breathe.”

And Cleo’s parents, buried in the landslide. And Scotty’s whole hometown, gone in the fires that came down from the forest. And Melanie’s dad, washed away in a flood. The next year the floods came back and washed away his grave. Everyone’s saving up for something.

A door opens below them; suddenly they can hear the video Diane is watching much more clearly. “We live on a mostly ruined planet,” says Gettings’ disembodied voice. “It makes sense to me that people want to travel to an era when this was a happier place to be.”

“I’m okay,” Sarah tells Rainey. “I can do it.”

“You can definitely do it,” Rainey affirms. “Remember: keep her alive, don’t let her change anything, don’t let her bring anything back. That’s all there is to it.”

There is a diving tutor on board the yacht, and while Rainey and Sarah set up the time machine she takes Diane down to see the reef—what’s left of it. Rainey has seen it before, all ghostly white and dead. She tells Sarah that diving down there felt like floating above a battlefield of unburied skeletons. Like she was an angel coming too late to save them.

“So why does Diane want to do it?” Sarah asks.

Rainey twists her face. “It’s part of the trip. Lucy Gettings says that before our guests visit the world’s lost treasures it’s important for them to realize just how much we’ve lost…Melanie says it’s about making the guests feel like they’re getting their money’s worth.”

“What do you think?”

Rainey shrugs.

By the time Diane comes back the machine is ready, floating off to one side of the yacht, looking like a speedboat. It’s a luxury machine: the seats and walls are discreetly padded; discreet, also, are the sick-bags hung by each seat. There is a faint scent of eucalyptus and a faint soundtrack of Chopin. When the tour guides have to travel without guests—when they are undergoing training, or setting up at the beginning of a trip—it is in a drafty, rattly, basic machine, so uncomfortable a ride that her first time left Rainey feeling weepy for the rest of the day.

Rainey and Sarah help Diane down the ladder into the machine. Rainey makes sure Diane and Sarah are both comfortable. She runs through the rules for Diane one more time—no avoidably altering the past, no bringing any living things back with you—and then she winks at Sarah and checks that the mask on Diane’s face isn’t too tight. A gentle hissing noise, and then Diane falls unconscious, still smiling faintly, her face lolling just a little against the headrest. Rainey sets the controls, and as the vessel begin to spin she braces herself for the trip.

The force of it is like a crushing blow to her whole body—like being punched by a giant, Rainey-sized fist. There’s a reason the tourists have to be knocked out to do this. The first few times Rainey took a trip she was amazed, later, to see that she wasn’t covered in bruises. It’s only painful for an instant, but it hurts so much that a lot of tour guides drop out after their first trip. The second trip is harder, because you know how much it’s going to hurt. This is Sarah’s second trip.

Rainey shudders and looks at the controls: it is 1991. The yacht is gone, left behind. Rainey looks at Sarah, who is taking deep breaths. “You okay?” Sarah nods. The two of them unbuckle themselves and check on Diane: she has vomited on herself, just a little. They check her airway, mop her face with a scented wipe and then wake her up. She beams at them, at the clear sky, at the other boats dotted companionably around them; and almost immediately she fits on a snorkel and jumps out of the machine and into the water.

Rainey and Sarah watch her splash around like a wind-up bath toy. The sun is going down, but the early evening is warm. The water is blue as a jewel; they can see fish from here, and Sarah leans so far out of the machine to dangle her hand among them that she almost topples out herself.

“Do you want to see the reef?” says Rainey, suddenly, without knowing she is going to say it.

Sarah’s eyes are huge. She and Rainey strip down to their underwear and let themselves fall backward into the warm water in unison, and Rainey shows Sarah how the snorkel works. The perks of this job are hard-won, but they are glorious. The fish swim so close to their faces that it takes their breath away. And the reef—the reef is beautiful. It’s pink, and as healthy as a newborn baby; as alive with movement as a town.

When Rainey comes back upright, a yacht has come closer to them, one much smaller than the luxury behemoth they’ve just left; and suddenly Rainey spots Diane, clambering back into the floating time machine. Diane turns and looks at a couple on the deck of the other yacht, and Rainey realizes that, once again, Diane is looking at her younger self, standing with Steve. She wonders why Diane has come back in time to spy again on the past of her own marriage—and why she hasn’t brought Steve with her this time—when the young Steve drops to one knee as the sun begins to set, and Rainey realizes in an instant what Diane is about to do.

Rainey dives through the water as though a shark is chasing her, but she can’t get there in time. Diane has her hands cupped around her mouth.

“Say no!” Diane screeches. In the distance Rainey can see Diana’s younger self—her hands still clasped to her face in the universal gesture of just having been proposed to—turning to see what the shouting is about.

“Say no!” Diane shouts again, waving both her arms in a gesture of no, get away, don’t do it. “Don’t do it! Do something else with your life! Say no!”

Before Rainey gets to Diane, Sarah appears out of nowhere—she launches herself out of the water, and in diving into the time machine, almost rugby-tackling Diane, she topples them both into the sea.

The couple on the deck of the yacht are laughing it off. Steve has that bulky camera up to his face and is snapping pictures in the direction of the commotion; the young Diane is holding out her hand, admiring her ring.

The same ring, still on the hand of the disillusioned Diane, scratches Sarah’s face as the two of them struggle in the water. Rainey climbs back into the machine and hauls Sarah in after her. Diane is scrabbling at the side.

“She nearly drowned me!” Diane splutters, her voice thick with shock and spite. “I will have your job for this, little madam! You will get fired, do you understand English? Get-to fired-o!”

Sarah says nothing. For a moment she and Rainey kneel in the time machine, still in their underwear with their snorkels dangling around their necks on rubber straps, their bare elbows resting on the side, looking down at Diane as she bobs in the water: her expensive black swimsuit; her expensive tanned face.

And Rainey thinks: when Diane makes her complaint about Sarah, Unspoiled will check the footage from the time machine’s camera. Their bosses will see not just Sarah knocking Diane flying, but the two of them leaving Diane unattended while they took five minutes to swim. They will see Diane risking the fabric of spacetime by trying to interfere in the past, and drawing so much attention to herself that the three of them will now appear in a photograph taken in 1991. Diane has signed multiple forms promising not to do any such thing, but there will be no consequences for Diane. Instead, both Sarah and Rainey will be fired. Rainey won’t be promoted, won’t be rich and successful like Lucy Gettings, won’t be able to go back and get her mother. Sarah won’t be able to go back and get her baby.

“The present is broken!” Diane babbles, still paddling uselessly against the sheer slick side of the time machine. “There’s no saving it! Not my marriage, not the planet, not any of it. I brought him back to when we were happy but it didn’t save us. He just loved the past more than he loved me.”

And Rainey thinks: she’s seen so many Unspoiled tour guides come and go, and none of them have ever been able to do what they were saving up for.

Diane tries to launch herself out of the water like Sarah did, but she doesn’t have the strength in her arms and she splashes back down. “Fuck you!” she gasps. “Fuck your rules. We should be allowed to change the past if we want to. The past is the only thing we can fix.”

And Rainey thinks: this is the last time Sarah and I will ever be in a time machine.

And she thinks: maybe the tour guides would be better off listening to Melanie, anyway.

And she thinks: young Diane and Steve are still close enough by that they could rescue the older Diane. That would be one hell of a conversation.

And she looks at Sarah, who out there in 1991 has not been born yet.

Sarah smiles and says, “Where and when?”

 

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Photo: Henk Mul on Unsplash

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