Authors: Robert Rankin
Tags: #prose_contemporary, #Fiction, #General, #Science Fiction
The third book in "The Brentford Trilogy", following on from "The Antipope" and "The Brentford Triangle". Once again it features the further adventures of Jim Pooley, John Omally, and all the regulars at the Flying Swan.
The third book in the Brentford series, 1984
Norman gave his ivory-handled screwdriver a final twist and secured the last screw into the side panel of the slim brass cylinder. Unclamping it from his vice, he lifted it lovingly by its shining axle, and held it towards the dust-smeared glass of the kitchenette window. It was a work of wonder and that was for certain. A mere ten inches in diameter and another one in thickness, the dim light painted a rainbow corona about its varnished circumference.
Norman carried it carefully across to his cluttered kitchen table and, elbowing aside a confusion of soiled crockery, placed it upon the twin bracket mountings which had been bolted through both tablecloth and table. The axle dropped into its mounts with a satisfying click and Norman, hardly daring to breathe, sought out his can of Three-in-One and applied a glistening bead of oil to either end.
If all his calculations, allied to those of a certain Johann Bessler, later known as Orffyreus, who had first demonstrated the prototype as long ago as 1712 in Zittau, East Germany, proved ultimately to be correct, he was even now standing upon the very threshold of yet another earth-shattering scientific breakthrough.
And all it needed was a breath. Norman leaned low over the brazen wheel and blew upon its edge. There was a faint click, followed by another and yet another, and with a beauty, which like all of its strange kind lay firmly within the eye of its beholder, the polished brass wheel began to rotate slowly. Around and around it went, gathering momentum, until at last it reached a steady rate. Norman drew out his pocket-watch and rattled it against his ear. The second hand took to once more sweeping the pitted face of the grandaddy’s retirement present. The polished wheel continued to turn; Norman counted beneath his breath and double-checked with his watch. Twenty-six revolutions per minute, exactly as old mad Bessler had predicted. Around and around and around for ever and ever and ever.
A broad, if lopsided, smile travelled where it could over Norman’s face. Returning his already failing watch to its fluff-filled waistcoat pocket, he clapped his hands together and did a silly sort of dance right there and then upon the worn lino of the grimy kitchenette.
The wheel spun, its former clicking now a dull purr, and Norman thrust a knuckle to his mouth and chuckled noiselessly. His free hand hovered for a moment above the spinning wheel. If the calculations were indeed correct then virtually nothing, short of out and out destruction, should actually be able to halt the wheel’s motion. Tentatively, he tapped a forefinger on to the polished surface. The wheel continued to spin. Gently, he plucked at it with finger and thumb. The wheel showed no signs of easing up. Norman laid firm hold with both hands upon the slim cylinder, his grasp skidded away, and the wheel rolled on and on and on.
This time he had cracked it! This time he had most definitely cracked it! The ultimate source of power. Weighing no more than a couple of pounds, its potential knew no bounds. It could charge up literally anything and, but for the occasional squirt of Three-in-One, needed next to no maintenance. Without the kitchenette, the shop door-bell suddenly rang in a customer and Norman dragged himself away from his spinning masterwork to answer the call of business. As he reached the door he paused a moment and looked back. Twenty-six revolutions per minute, round and around and around, for ever and ever and ever. With a final silent chuckle and a theatrical backways kick, Norman passed through the doorway, leaving his world of magic to emerge into the gloomy reality of his musty corner-shop.
Before the counter stood one James Pooley, betting man, free-thinker, and bachelor of the parish. His hand, which had even then been snaking across towards the peppermint packets, returned itself to the tweedy depths of a bottomless trouser pocket. With a cheery, “Good morning to you, Norman,” Pooley bade the shopkeeper that very thing.
“Same to yourself, Jim,” said Norman. “The daily, would it be?”
“The very same, five Woodys and a
. I think that today I am a little more than usually liable to pull off ‘The Big One’.”
“Of course.” Norman deftly drew out a packet of cigarettes and the aforementioned racing paper without for a moment removing his gaze from the approximate location of Pooley’s ever-wandering hands. It was not that Jim was by nature a dishonest man, but living daily upon his wits, he dared never let any opportunity, no matter how small, slip by.
“You wear the smile of a man who has already pulled off that ever elusive big fellow,” said Jim, noting well the twisted smirk still firmly plastered across Norman’s face.
The shopkeeper passed Jim his life-support apparatus and nodded wildly. “I have, I have,” said he, amidst a flurry of nose-tapping. “Although on this occasion, as upon others, I cannot take full credit for it all myself.”
“No matter that. Many a wealthy man owes his success in life to the labours of a deceased relative.” Jim slipped his cigarettes into his breast-pocket and rolled his newspaper. “So what is it then? Something of a scientific nature I have no doubt.”
“The very same.”
“Might I hazard a guess?”
“Be very pleased to.”
Jim stroked at the stubble of his chin, which he had been meaning to shave off for at least a day or so, and cocked his head upon one side. “Now, if I am not mistaken,” said he, “your recent obsession, and I use the word in the kindest possible way, has been with energy. The solar panels upon your roof do not go unnoticed hereabouts and the fact that you possess the only Morris Minor in the neighbourhood which runs upon coke has raised more than the occasional eyebrow. Am I right therefore in assuming that it is towards energy, power, and things of that nature that you have turned your enormous intellect?”
Norman’s head bobbed up and down after the fashion of a toy dog in a Cortina rear window.
“Aha, then if I am not mistaken I will hazard a guess that you have rediscovered the long lost secret of perpetual motion.”
Norman clapped his hands together. “You got it,” he crowed. “Got it in one. I am glad that I did not lay money upon it. You got it in one.”
“Naturally,” said Jim, blowing on his fingernails. “But I feel you knew that I would.”
Norman nodded again. “True,” he said. “I must admit that I had been somewhat puzzled by the ever-increasing number of little bright patches appearing upon the window of my kitchenette. However, noticing of late that each corresponds exactly in size and shape to the blot of dirt upon the end of your nose, all would seem to be revealed. But what do you think, Jim? The marvel of the age would you say? Feel free to offer criticism; my shoulders although physically bowed are metaphorically broad.”
Jim thrust his rolled-up paper into a jacket pocket. “If you will pardon me saying this, Norman, I have never myself had a lot of truck with the concept of perpetual motion. You will recall, no doubt, me saying that the chap in Chiswick who gave all those lectures at the Memorial Library propounding the theory of reincarnation has died yet again.”
Norman nodded yet again.
“And you will also recall my brilliant
made upon the news of his passing, that the trouble with those fellows is that they are here today and here tomorrow?”
“Well, such it is with perpetual motion. A fine thing it might be in itself, and a pleasure to the inventor thereof, but to the general public, in particular to the man of limited reason with no care for the higher truth, it presents but one thing only.”
“Absolute monotony,” said Pooley in a leaden tone. “All-consuming, soul-destroying, absolute monotony.”
With these few words he turned upon his heel and strode from the shop, leaving Norman to ponder upon not one but two eternal problems. The first being how a man such as Pooley could have the sheer gall to write off the greatest scientific discovery of the age with a few poorly chosen words. And the second, how he had managed, once more, to escape from the shop without having paid for either Woodbines or
“The wheels of God grind slowly,” thought Norman to himself. “But they do grind at twenty-six revolutions per minute.”
Neville the part-time barman flip-flopped across the deserted saloon-bar of the Flying Swan, his monogrammed carpet-slippers raising small clouds of dust from the faded carpet. Rooting with a will, he sought his newspaper which lay upon the pub’s welcome mat beneath a pile of final demands, gaudy circulars, and rolled posters advertising the forthcoming Festival of Brentford.
Shaking it free of these postal impediments, Neville unfolded the local tabloid and perused the front page. More good good news. Earthquakes and tidal waves, wars and rumours of wars. Jolly stuff. And on the home front? Well, there was the plague of black fly currently decimating the allotment crops. A rival brewery had just put its beer up a penny a pint and its competition, ever happy to accept a challenge, were hinting at rises of two pence or more.
One particular gem caught the part-time barman’s good eye: the local banks, in keeping with a countrywide trend, were investigating the possibility of dispensing with coin of the realm and instigating a single credit card system. That would go down a storm with the locals, thought Neville. Without further ado he consigned the wicked messenger of bad tidings to the wastepaper basket. “I shall cancel this,” said the part-time barman to himself. “I shall ask Norman to despatch me something of a more cheerful nature in the future. Possibly the
But on further consideration, even those two periodicals were not exactly devoid of grim tidings nowadays. The
, not content with simply going up three pence, assailed its readers with a fine line in doom prophecy, and the
dedicated most of its pages to large anatomical diagrams of black fly. Neville shrugged his dressing-gowned shoulders. Seemed like a nice day though, but. The sun rising majestic as ever from behind the flat-blocks and tickling the Swan’s upper panes. Always some hope for the future. Although, lately, Neville had been feeling more than a little ill at ease. It was as if some great burden was descending upon him, inch by inch and pound by pound, down on to his bony shoulders. He was hard put to explain the feeling, and there was little point in confiding his unease to the regulars, but he was certain that something altogether wrong was happening and, moreover, that it was happening to him personally.
Leaving his newspaper to confide its black tidings to the fag ends in the wastepaper basket and his mail to gather what dust it wished upon the doormat, Neville the part-time barman flip-flopped away up the Swan’s twenty-six stairs to his cornflakes and a cup of the blackest of all black coffees.
In another part of Brentford other things were stirring this Shrove Tuesday morning and what those other things were and what they would later become were matters which would in their turn weigh very heavily indeed upon certain part-time barmen’s shoulders.
They all truly began upon a certain section of unreclaimed bomb-site along the High Street between the Beehive pub and a rarely used side-turning known as Abaddon Street. And as fate would have it, it was across this very stretch of land that an Irish gentleman of indeterminate years, wearing a well-patched tweed jacket and a flat cap, was even now striding. He was whistling brightly and as it was his wont to do, leading by the perished rubber grip of a pitted handlebar, an elderly sit-up-and-beg bike. This was one John Vincent Omally, and his rattling companion, labouring bravely along, although devoid of front mudguards and rear brake and sorely in need of the healing balm offered by Norman’s oilcan, was none other than that prince of pedaldom, Marchant, the wonder bike. Over the rugged strip of land came these two heroic figures, the morning sun tinting their features, treading a well-worn short-cut of their own making. Omally whistling a jaunty tune from the land of his fathers and Marchant offering what accompaniment he could with the occasional bout of melodic bell ringing. God was as ever in Omally’s Heaven and all seemed very much all right with the world.
As they came a-striding, a-whistling and a-ringing, small birdies fluttered down on to the crumbling ivy-hung brickwork of the surrounding walls to join them in a rowdy chorus. Beads of dew swung upon dandelion stems and fat-bellied garden spiders fiddled with their diamond-hung webs. It certainly wasn’t a bad old life if you had the know of it, and Omally was a man whom it could reasonably be said had that very know. The lad gave a little skip and doffed his hat to the day. Without warning his foot suddenly struck a half-buried object which had certainly not existed upon his previous day’s journeyings. To the accompaniment of a great Godless oath which momentarily blotted out the sunlight and raised the twittering birdies into a startled confusion, the great man of Eire plunged suddenly towards the planet of his birth, bringing with him his bicycle and tumbling into a painful, untidy, and quite undignified heap.
“By the blood of the Saints!” swore Omally, attempting to rise but discovering to his horror that Marchant now held him in something resembling an Indian death-lock. “In the name of all the Holies!” The tangled bike did what it could to get a grip of itself and spun its back wheel, chewing up several of Omally’s most highly-prized fingers. “You stupid beast!” screamed himself, lashing out with an oversized hobnail. “Have a care will you?” The bike, having long years of acquaintanceship with its master to its credit, considered that this might be the time to keep the now legendary low profile.
Amidst much cursing and a great deal of needless profanity, Omally struggled painfully to his feet and sought the cause of his downfall. Almost at once he spied out the villain, a nubble of polished metal protruding from the dusty path. John was not slow in levelling his size-nine boot at it.
He was someway between mid-swing and full-swing when a mental image of a bygone relative swam into his mind. He had performed a similar action upon a half-buried obstruction during the time of the blitz. The loud report and singular lack of mortal remains paid a posthumous tribute to his lack of forethought. DANGER UNEXPLODED BOMB! screamed a siren in Omally’s brain. John lowered his size-nine terror weapon gently to the deck and stooped gingerly towards the earth to examine the object. To his amazement he found himself staring at the proverbial thing of beauty. A mushroom of highly-polished brass surmounted by an enamel crown. There was that indefinable quality of value about it and Omally was not slow to notice the fact. His fingers greedily wore away at its earthy surrounding, exposing a slender, fluted column extending downwards. From even this small portion it was clear that the thing was a rare piece of workmanship; the flutes were cunningly inlaid with mother-of-pearl. Omally climbed to his feet and peered furtively around to assure himself that he was alone with his treasure. That he had struck the motherlode at last was almost a certainty. There was nothing of the doodlebug or Mark Seventeen Blockbuster about this boy, but very much of the antique bedstead of Victoria and Albert proportions.
John rubbed his hands together and chuckled. What was it his old Da had once said? A dead bird never falls out of the nest, that was it. Carefully covering his find with a clump or two of grass, Omally continued upon his way. The birdies had flown and the spiders had it away on their eight ones, but before Omally reached his secret exit in the planked fencing he was whistling once more, and Marchant was doing his level best to keep up with the increasingly more sprightly tune.