the heft and the edge 9/4/2018
This is a piece of writing from
The Twist Inside (Song of Ages V. 2)
This is a selection from Part 2 - Inventions. Angren, Sigrid and Terrance, along with Baron Harald Gumb, have decided to visit Gaston Zollerine , a great inventor. They’re hoping to borrow a boat.
OUT OF HER STAYS
They were rattling down a rutted path in a coach and four, a path that plunged into a dank, waterlogged woodland, a woodland that fringed the backwaters of one of the Rine’s tributaries, a few miles north of Ripon. The wheels of the coach sank ever deeper as they progressed, the horses slipped and strained. It was only gravity and the steep decline that kept them going at all. Terrance wasn’t looking forward to the prospect of having to get out and walk, but even as the thought occurred to him the coach passed under a mouldering stone archway into a muddy clearing. At the centre stood a cottage that had seen better days – perhaps several hundred years back. The thatch was ragged and holey; the walls of lath and plaster showed rather too much lath, and if the plaster had been painted at some point, the colour was by now a distant memory. Surrounding this pile, in higgledy-piggledy order, stood a clutch of outbuildings in various states of repair, or of construction. The impression they gave was that as the owner decided upon a project, the old shacks would be abandoned and a new one built. Scattered liberally throughout the spaces between the sheds was a saw-mill, a foundry, a pottery’s worth of discarded materials. The detritus could keep a village in firewood, ploughshares, spades and timber frames for half a generation.
A hovel, a shanty, an eyesore: such was the home and workshop and laboratory of the great inventor of his age, Gaston Zollerine. The man himself clearly had no illusions about the place. The two of them first out of the carriage, Angren prodded Terrance’s arm and pointed back towards the archway. Kept ajar by mud and weed and half collapsed anyway, a large wooden gate hung off its hinges. There was a name chiselled into the top rail: two words. Though the black paint was mostly peeled away from the grooves it was still possible to make it out. Angren grinned as Terrance rolled his eyes to the heavens. The words read Crappy Bottom.
“So, this Zollerine chap’s a friend of yours,” said Terrance. “Makes sense somehow.”
“More a friend of Seama’s. He’s a good laugh though. Spent a few evenings drinking with Zoll over the years. That’ll be him now.”
Angren nodded ahead towards one of the more decent barns. There was no one to be seen but the sound of men singing came from within. It was a round to an old tune, but Terrance had never heard the words before.
“We mash the malt
And spurge the wort,
We keep some hops We mash the malt
For last resort. We spurge the wort
We cut the maize, We keep some hops
And add the cut; For last resort
For forty days We cut the maize,
We keep her hot. And add our cut
And then For forty days
The beer And keep her hot
And then the beer is made
And pray the brew will live.
We’ll drink your health and drink your wealth,
The best the land can give.”
They entered in a line, Angren first, then Sigrid, Terrance and Gumb bringing up the rear. Zollerine didn’t notice them at first for the song had ended with a raising of tankards. The participants were tasting the first drawing of their latest brew.
“Didn’t take you for a musical sort, Zoll.”
Zollerine started at his name.
“Angren! Now that’s what I call good timing,” he called, “Hold onto your hat and grab a tankard. It’s a damn good ‘un. Our Will’ won’t mind sharing his brew now it’s been properly welcomed. Come in, come in, good to see you. Ah…” He stopped burbling, having just caught sight of Sigrid. “Sorry. Ladies present, I see. And the good baron too. Not used to so many visitors at once. Er, now then, ale. How many cups have we, Will? But perhaps the lady would prefer tea? Only, I’m not sure if I’ve got any…”
Sigrid actually giggled.
“Don’t worry about tea,” she said, “I can drink beer if needs be, though a glass of parlour sherry would be better.”
“Sherry? Yes, sherry. No. No, I don’t think I have.”
“Or even a glass of Terskat?” She nodded at the shelf behind him.
“That we can do! Sharp eyes. Ten, Fifteen or Twenty-Five?”
“Twenty-five? Really? It’d be almost impolite to accept.”
“Not at all. I’d welcome comment – cost me enough but there’s no pleasure in drinking it alone. Well, not as much anyway. Tom, get it down while I find some glasses.”
“You’re a generous man.”
Angren felt the need to intervene.
“You’ve made a friend there, Zoll.”
Zollerine was on his haunches rooting about in a cupboard. He stopped to consider the notion for a few seconds.
“I do need friends, I’m told. So, on the whole, I’m glad.”
It was a good evening. Gumb knew his man very well indeed. For all his creativity and invention, Zollerine’s abilities did not extend to fine cooking. Fully aware of the deficiency, Gumb had stocked the coach with a hamper full enough to feed a dozen comfortably. Zoll for his part had no difficulty providing the drinks. The happy mood produced was just what they needed.
There was no struggle, no resistance, no need for subtle reasoning or offers of reward. Angren did the honours:
“Zoll, you ever gonna try that boat out?”
“Boat? My boat – Gertrude?
“Too sweet, too sweet. Let’s give her a whirl: kick the old cow out of her stays. Garassa hey? Well hold onto your hats my friends, she’ll have us there in no time. Er. Any particular reason you want to get to the city? No, never mind – I don’t give a damn. Itching to get her onto the water.”
The evening saw off not one but three bottles of Terskat - it was a whisky-like drink but sweeter as though blended with rum, and stronger than both. There was more singing, some inevitable bickering between Angren and Sigrid, a constant stream of stories and ideas from Zollerine, and much laughter – mostly from an unusually relaxed Terrance. The Baron declared he’d not had such a good night for an age. Several times. Morning found at least three of them with splitting headaches, but not one of them would admit it.
The “old cow” was not too unkind a description, or too inapt. She resided under an open-ended barn, on a carriage frame fashioned from oak beams and iron strapping, supported by eight sturdy cart wheels.
“Haul her out, haul her out,” Zoll instructed, happy to lend his own weight to the task as his crew of engineers laid hands on the hawsers attached to the frame. Angren, already wincing at the noise of all the “heave-hos” and the “here-she-comes” couldn’t persuade himself to join in. But with the rest of them he took a good long look at what was emerging into the too bright light of day. He shaded his eyes with a hand and pulled a face. Terrance at his side did likewise.
“For a boat to remind one of an upended milker,” he said, “would no doubt worry some people – namely the prospective passengers.”
Angren merely grunted and continued his examination. It did indeed look like a cow rolled over. The hull was the equivalent of a flat broad back, the slight curves of the side were nothing so much as squarish, like the flanks of a well-fed heifer, and rising from each corner stubby legs, or masts one supposed, prodded skywards. The bow was a curved neck and something which looked very much like a bovine head seemed to peer back along the length of its belly, as if trying to reassure itself that all its parts were still intact. The “parts” most notably were what looked like udders that wobbled incomprehensibly between the rear legs. What they might be made of and what their function was not immediately clear. In fact, nothing was clear. The masts, if that was what they were, didn’t appear to be connected to any means of raising a sail. The head contraption seemed to incorporate a series of pulleys, but currently there was no rope or cable to be seen. The incomprehension of the blank faces of those destined to board was so evident that Zollerine felt the need to offer an explanation.
“You’ve got to look at it this way. There are many so-called engineers and scientists doing their best to create perpetual motion. The trials they make reduce to almost nothing the forces employed: they make silly little whirling things that neither produce any real power or manage to conserve whatever is generated. My dreams are far grander. What is the use of perpetual motion unless it achieves something? It’s all to do with a balancing of powers of course, energy in and energy out, in a continuous cycle with no loss. Perpetual motion.”
“Sounds like a description of my life.”
“No, no Angren. I’m talking about a technic… huh, huh. I see. Too sweet. Of course, I’m sure you all know what I mean, but you see, it’s the doing of it that counts.”
Terrance shook his head. “While I appreciate that you’re trying to explain yourself I’m still none the wiser. Are you saying you’ve achieved perpetual motion in this ungainly beast?”
“Well, near as damnation – mind you, it’s not properly tested yet.
“Not done a long trip in it yet?”
“Never had it in the water, Terrance.”
The prospective passengers all shared a look. Sigrid guffawed and punched Angren, not too lightly, on the shoulder. “As I recall, Old Angren, this was all your idea. ‘I know someone with a boat,’ you said, and like stupid blind sheep, we all just bleated and followed you. Should have known better. Now we discover the damn thing’s never even wet an oar.”
“Actually,” said Zoll, with a grin, “it doesn’t have oars.”
“Not been in the water, doesn’t have oars – are you sure it’s a boat? Shouldn’t you just leave the wheels on and call it a carriage?”
“Doesn’t have sails either. That’s the beauty of it.”
“Does it float at all?”
“Now hang on Sig.” Angren decided it was time to defend his plan. “I admit it doesn’t look like the normal sort of thing you see on a river, but you need to trust Zoll. He’s a genius with this sort of thing. We all agreed it’ll take too long to get to Garassa overland – for one it’s too far and for another we have to count the roads as enemy territory. Zoll’s boat is the solution to the problem. The River Rine is really fast—”
“Yes, and furious- dangerous even, I’ll grant you that, but Zoll swears he can get the boat through. Don’t you, Zoll?”
“Er, well probably.”
“Thanks for the resounding support. Look Sig, we’ve got to give it a try. Don’t we?”
“You can call me unreasonable, but before I get on it I’d like to be convinced that this contraption isn’t going to drown me.”
Angren shrugged. He turned to the inventor. “Zoll, no offence, but I suppose she’s got a point. Shouldn’t we just try putting it in the water? Like now?”
Zoll grinned again, gleefully. “Just waiting for the nod, Angren. And that I guess was it. Right lads, let’s get her rolling.”
There was a launchway grooved into the soft earth of the bank. Here the river pooled into a man-made basin. Zollerine had somehow managed to fund the building of a watermill but had found that the river flow, though strong enough for a miller’s needs, was inadequate for his own more particular purposes. And so, more funds had been found to make the lake and to delve a deep and narrow race to turn his wheels. Angren traced the channel down to the wheelhouse, and back to the watergates at the edge of the pool. Today the gates were closed and the mill silent.
Over on the upstream side of the pool stood a prodigious construction: a twenty-foot-tall pier made of mighty timbers with a long ramp attached. Zoll’s men had ignored the launchway in favour of the cinder path up to the ramp. Angren was amazed at how easily Gertrude rolled along it - all in the quality of the axles he supposed. But, surely they weren’t intending to push her up the ramp?
“They’ll never do it. Too heavy,” he announced to anyone who might be listening.
“Do you think so?” said Terrance. “For myself I think that team of heavy horses might be involved.” He indicated the four beasts emerging from a path through the woods.
It took a little while hitching the team and Gertrude’s carriage to the hawsers that ran up to the winches at the head of the pier. But after that everything ran smoothly, with the horses led away slowly and the carriage wheels accurately engaging in the slotted path of the ramp. There would be no mistakes.
When the carriage was settled high up on the flat of the pier, the workers locked its wheels in place using iron callipers.
“What the devil’s he doing?” demanded Gumb.
The boat wobbled slightly as the stays holding Gertrude safe on the carriage were removed.
“I don’t know,” said Sigrid, “but whatever he’s up to, I’m staying here until that boat has safely sunk to the bottom of the lake. As it will be doing very shortly, I’m sure.”
Zollerine had followed the carriage up onto the pier, supervising the activity, but now, clearly satisfied all was well, he came trotting back. Angren sniggered. Zoll’s gangling trot was odd to look upon. He seemed in imminent danger of collapse as knees and feet, legs and arms shot out in unexpected directions. Perpetual motion had nothing on the impossibility of this form of progress.
“Ha ha! So, lady and gentlemen,” he said on arrival, seemingly un-puffed by his exertions. “I believe that some among you have expressed doubts as to the integrity of my design. And I cannot blame you – she looks a rum sort of thing, doesn’t she? But believe me, what stands before you now is the world’s first super-buoyant, perpetually actioned, water-propelled conveyance. To begin with we will demonstrate her buoyancy. Instead of slipping her into the lake like er… like a maiden taking her first swim, I’m going to drop her in nose-first – a young tyke, if you like, showing off to his girl. Except she’s a she, of course. Everybody ready?”
Sigrid rolled her eyes and retreated some way further up the bank.
“Anything the matter, Sigrid?”
“Large, heavy thing falling twenty feet into the water,” she said.
“Oh, good point. Perhaps we should er… yes.”
After they’d all relocated, the inventor waved both hands above his head and yelled: “Let her go.”
Up on the pier, two men with heavy hammers knocked away the chocks at the rear, and it was only then that the onlookers realized that the pier had a cantilevered section. As the chocks flew away the section rocked forwards and Gertrude, as promised, was dropped nose-first into the pool. An almighty plume of water shot into the air, like some reverse cataract, to drench everyone not far enough from the shore. The lake appeared to swallow Gertrude whole, but then to much amazement it spat her out again. And there she was bobbing about, tugging at the tethers that trailed back to the base of the pier, badly treated but completely intact.
“Too sweet! Too sweet!” Zollerine was ecstatic. “The lake’s not even very deep – not as deep as Gertrude is long, but soon as the nose hit the surface the design was already forcing her up and out. Any other boat’d be stuck in, tail up like some monstrous duck, and her bill in the mud. You see, you can trust me on these things. I’m a real scientist – I don’t just dabble. Huh huh.”
“Quack bloody quack,” said Angren. “No, really though, I have to say that was bloody impressive. Unsinkable, by the look of it. What d’you say, Sig? Has Zoll convinced you?”
Sigrid raised her eyebrows. “I’d say he’s definitely made a bit of a splash. But let’s see how he gets her going without oars or sails. Then I’ll let you know.”
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