Bertie and the Beast

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A green and scary monster

Once again we are beholden to the current executors of the Knolly estate for letting us publish this, the second package of the great man's journals and memoirs.

Northward Ho! Part 4

It was most strange, being aboard a train that was not moving. Of course, I had been on a stationary train before. Come to think of it, I had also been on a stationery train as a young midshipman, having been tasked to guard a consignment of Admiralty-headed notepaper. But there is normally some or other kerfuffle surrounding an operational train even when it is not moving; porters loading and unloading, firemen tending, engineers getting oil and grease everywhere, ticket collectors ambling and being pompous. I am familiar with trains in working environments – where they are animated, where each has a life and character of its own, and all exist as if an extended family of enormous, benign, steam-belching dragons like those birds that clean the teeth of crocodiles – but the situation in which I found myself was very different and altogether rather eerie. The train was not only stationary; it was comatose.

'The office you remember is this way, sir,' said Meeds, snapping me out of my daydream.

He strode toward a door, opened it and then ushered me into a connecting lobby. Before he closed the door on the gymnasium, he flicked a switch on the wall, and the carriage and lobby were plunged into total darkness. I could not see my hand in front of my face. I was convinced that it was my hand that I had put in front of my face, but such was the depth of darkness that I could not be certain.

'Excuse me, sir. Just need to head into the next carriage for the light,' said Meeds as he squeezed past me, took my elbow and began to lead me slowly through the lobby.

'Errrm, shouldn't there be more lights?' I asked.

'Oh, we're just having a bit of an issue with the circuits. Nothing to worry about, it'll all be fine when we're done. Just step slowly where I lead. I know this train like the back of my hand.'

We took several small paces and stopped. I heard a door open and I was led in a manner most twisty-turny, presumably now being in the next carriage. Meeds stopped and I bumped into him.

'Sir, if you would just stand here while I enable the backup batteries for the safety lights. Please,' and at this point his tone became most earnest, 'stay very still and do not touch anything.'

I heard his footsteps wending away from me, followed by the sound of a door opening and closing. I can honestly say that I have never felt so alone – even worse than that dreadful occasion when I stowed myself in the Black Hole of Calcutta as part of a drunken bet.

Meeds could only have been gone a minute or so, but in the silence and the darkness (and with his strange, unqualified warning fresh in my mind) it seemed like hours.

I then heard a faint hum, and then a series of small, white lights flickered and then glimmered and then glowed. They were not bright lights by any means, but they banished enough of the darkness so that I could see my surroundings. I then wished that they had not done so, for to my left was a large apparatus that housed a circular saw with vicious teeth positioned a mere six inches from my face. Directly in front of me was a large, open crate that was full of nails and tacks. Just to my right was a bench with two glass jars, one labelled hydrochloric acid the other sulphuric acid. Above me hung a pulley with a rather severe-looking meat hook a-dangling a few inches from my scalp.

I turned my head very slowly, fearful in case I might inadvertently place my neck into a noose or a bear-trap that had been carelessly draped from the roof. I espied similar dangers everywhere, hence the twisty-turny route through the potential disasters and his warning to stay still. I made to rest on the bench to my left, but realised that I would have leaned against the ON/OFF switch for the circular saw. I decided to remain standing where I was, and I decided to sweat and shake a little.

Meeds suddenly appeared, smiling.

'Do you like our shed?' He asked breezily. 'Sorry about the mess.'

'Mess??!! Good Lord, man! What sort of train has this become? Armed marionettes. A death-trap of a workshop. There is danger in every carriage as far as I can see. You'll be showing me the pool of piranha fish next, I'll be bound!'

'Oh, yes sir. That's three compartments down, sir.'


'No, not really sir. Only jesting. And this particular carriage isn't part of the train that will be going with you – it's our workshop. Mr Hobbes has a smaller version which you'll find is a little tidier. Now, let's get you to that telephone before you damage anything, shall we?'

I nodded meekly and picked my steps carefully as I followed him.

'Mr Hobbes is a bright spark, isn't he sir?' said Meeds.

'Indeed, he is.' I agreed. 'His capacity for innovation and invention never ceases to amaze me. Mind you... dress sense and common sense can go a bit awry when he's getting his teeth into a problem.'

'Ah! That would explain why he was working in his pyjamas when he was sorting out the telephonic system.'

Meeds stopped and turned to me.

'Do you know,' he said in a conspiratorial manner, 'I think that Mr Hobbes has got a bit of a ...... thing ..... for an Italian lady.'

'Really?' I asked. This was news to me.

'Oh, yes. Says that he's worked with her and he is always talking about how clever she is. Reckons that there will soon be no need for wires when we use the telephone. Ooooo... whatsername? Julia Macaroni, I think he said.'

'Ah. I think that would be Guglielmo Marconi...'

'That's her!'

I wished not to correct Meeds any further, but the image of a wild-eye browed Hobbes, dressed in pyjamas and getting familiar with an Italian scientist was a hard image to shift from my mind.

'Here we are, sir, the office. We've had to change it somewhat due to the sleeping arrangements we discussed.'

It was now a smaller but well-appointed workspace. Hobbes' design utilised every nook and cranny, and Meeds' crew had perfectly implemented the design. On the desk rather than the wall was what I required – the telephone. I picked up the earpiece and wound the handle. Nothing...

'Oh dear!' said Meeds. 'The voltaic cells for the telephone systems have been run down. Never mind. This will be a good test of the emergency power system. Are you ready?'

'I am afraid that I cannot claim any sort of proficiency with electrical circuitry.' I said.

'That's as maybe, but are you relatively fit?' asked Meeds as he rummaged under the desk.

'Well.... yes,' I replied, not really understanding the connection between electricity and my fitness.

'Good!' He said as he emerged holding aloft a small piece of machinery that had pedals. 'Then, sir, may I make as so bold as to suggest.... on yer bike?'

He suggested that I start pedalling and he would explain. Instead of propelling me around and about (as on a normal bicycle) my pedalling would be driving a belt that would cause magnets to turn inside metal coils which would then generate an electric current! After only a few minutes, this would provide sufficient power for the telephone and would also start to recharge the cells.

'Marvellous!' I said as I pedalled.

'That's not all, sir,' said Meeds. 'The train, once in motion, uses similar – although much larger – devices to generate huge amounts of power to drive all of Hobbes' electrical gadgetry and thingummybobbery.'

'Great gussets!' I cried. 'That Hobbes is a genius!' I pedalled even more frantically.

'That's what I say too, one of my lads reckons he could move the world itself given a lever and a place to stand.'

I stopped my peddling, 'I think you'll find that was Archimedes.'

'Really, what ship is he serving on then?' I shook my head.

'I think that you might be able to use the telephone now, sir,' said Meeds.

And, by Jove, he was right! I cranked the handle and there was a familiar crackle and hum, I dialled Merrick's number.

'Merrick? Knolly here. Are you well?'

'Knolly! Yes – thank you – I am fine. Are you well, Knolly? You sound as strange as I do.'

I said that I was on a train and that I was pedalling. There was a silence.

'Have you been drinking?' asked Merrick patiently.

'No, not yet. It's all to do with electricity. It ran out and now I'm making some!' I said.

Another silence...

'Yes, of course you are old chap.' I heard him cover up his mouthpiece and call out to Charlie: 'No... It's only Knolly. He's drunk again....'

'Merrick, I have not been drinking! I need to speak with Hobbes rather urgently. I have had an epiphany about the staff!'

'Staff? The staff of which pub?'

'No! The staff of Quitzlelotapoplekettle!' I replied.

'Wasn't that the Mexican themed restaurant in Sydenham?' asked Merrick. 'Wonderful place not been in ages though. Loved their tequila. Is that what you have been drinking? You didn't swallow the little worm, did you? Maybe that's why you are rambling.....'

'MERRICK! I HAVE NOT BEEN DRINKING!! I am talking about my birthday present – the staff of Quitzlelotapoplekettle. I think that it may be related to the contents of my uncle's journal!' I replied rather vexed.

'Oh! Well, I'm afraid that Hobbes left about an hour ago. Said that he had something to attend to at home. Can I help?'

I was a little taken aback that Hobbes had gone, but did not read too much into it as he was probably keen to work out his theories on his huge chalkboard.

'You just might.'

I grimaced as my legs were starting to ache from the pedalling. I considered for a moment if I might be the first man in history to have got cramp from a telephone conversation?

'Did you make much sense of the journal together?'

'We believe that we made some headway, but you will be best-off talking with Hobbes. You know how much he keeps in his head, and to tell the truth, I'm a little tired now.'

Poor fellow. In my keenness to launch my investigation, I had quite forgotten how frail Merrick was after earlier events.

'Yes, I am sorry. Thank you for your help, and please accept my apologies for having got all snippy with you.'

'That's quite all right, Knolly. I know how alcohol can affect the senses. You get yourself to bed early. Get a good night's sleep and you'll be fine and sober come the morning. Night night!'

Fortunately for him, he disconnected before I could muster the energy to yell!

Now to speak with Hobbes. But first, I decided to rest for a minute or two, and to rub my legs while I gathered my thoughts, pondering how I might approach the conversation and, if necessary, convince him of my sobriety. I reached for my trusty hip flask for inspiration...

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