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The Nutcombe Tales


The Future Lies Ahead

A stranger passing through the village had stopped for refreshment at the Red Lion. He had expatiated on the wonders of the Festival of Britain, and upon learning that none of those present had been up to see it, his manner had become somewhat condescending. After he had gone, there was a hurt silence for a moment, followed by some scornful comments.

Townies! What do they know?

Festival of Britain? Festival of London, more like!

All the same, said the landlord Ron Baker, it's not right. Nutcombe is Britain too. We should have got a festival.

Fat chance! The only way we'd get a festival is to do it ourselves.

Half an hour and several pints later, this comment became a fixed resolve - there would be Festival of Nutcombe.

To give the project the status it deserved, someone in authority was needed to head it. The following day, therefore, Ron approached the vicar with the request that he should recruit and chair an organising committee. The Reverend Claud Higgins' mind was elsewhere. He was composing a sermon against avarice, in which he intended to make many references to the joys of giving. His purpose was to increase the size of the collections, but he now wondered whether that was not in itself avaricious. To Ron he replied automatically, Yes, quite so. When he realised what he had committed himself to, he regretted, not for the first time, that his calling required him to be pleasant to people. Life would be so much easier if the clergy were allowed to be rude. Perhaps he should speak to the bishop about it. After all, Jesus was quite abrupt at times. He was hardly polite to the money changers in the temple. That thought brought him face to face once more with the dilemma of his sermon, so he immersed himself instead in the task he had involuntarily undertaken.

The qualities required of his committee were, he thought, first, that they should be enthusiastically in favour of a Festival of Nutcombe, and second, that they should be persons of sound judgement. Sadly he realised that there was little chance of anyone satisfying both criteria. Compromise was called for. When the first meeting of the committee assembled a few days later it was made up of Fred Atkins from the garage, Amos Lovejoy the undertaker, both of whom were instigators of the project and whose practical skills might be valuable, Mrs Wagstaff, who could be relied upon to muster her Ladies Circle if need be, and Andrew Riley, who owned the hardware store.

Andrew had bought Stanley Gold's failing drapery shop when Stanley died in 1948. Since then he had widened the scope of the undertaking and now sold anything that was not edible. His business brought him into contact with most of the inhabitants, and he was well known and well liked. After three years he was still regarded as a newcomer, and he hoped that by agreeing to serve on the committee he would prove himself to be a local. He had visited the Festival in London, and he advised the committee that its essential features were the Dome of Discovery, the Festival Hall, and the Skylon.

They swiftly agreed that the only suitable site would be the recreation ground. A bonfire was lit there every Fifth of November, and they thought that this year the Guy Fawkes celebrations could be part of the Festival. For the Dome, the marquee used for garden parties would have to suffice, and Fred was deputed to see to that aspect. For the Festival Hall, the vicar pointed out that the Scout Hut on the recreation ground was rather dilapidated. The hut could be refurbished and renamed. That commission was entrusted to Amos. They asked Andrew what a Skylon was, and he described it as a straight thing pointing up to the sky. When asked in what way it differed from a telegraph pole, he explained that it was not planted in the ground, but was held up by wires. Being none the wiser, the committee delegated Andrew to provide a Skylon. They were all empowered to recruit such volunteers as they could muster to assist in their endeavours.

*****

Amos found his task to be straightforward. As an undertaker he could buy fine timber at trade prices. The hut was soon resplendent in oak and mahogany panelling, and profusely embellished with brass ornamental fittings. A suitably engraved brass plate on the door was shrouded in black velvet, awaiting a formal unveiling.

*****

Fred found his remit more involved. Obtaining the marquee was not difficult, but Andrew had told him that it should contain exhibits of futuristic inventions. After consulting acquaintances young and old, Fred had a list of marvels that would come to pass in the twentieth century. He regretfully dismissed ray guns, two-way wrist radios, amphibious motor cars, personal helicopters, and atomic engines that would take the Queen Mary across the Atlantic on a single lump of coal. These were, he admitted, beyond his powers, at least in the time available. However, he thought he could make some representation of television, rocket ships to the moon, robot servants, and moving pavements.

For the TV set, a hole was cut in the bottom of a tea chest, a sheet of tissue paper pasted over it, and the chest laid on its side. The school lent its film projector, which Fred set up to project Felix the Cat cartoons into the interior of the chest. Looking at the bottom of the chest with the film running, Fred felt it unlikely that real television would ever be quite as good, even without the back to front captions.

For the second exhibit, a plywood mock-up of a moon ship was constructed, with clips to hold twelve Brocks rockets, which would be ignited simultaneously at some suitably climactic moment.

Between these two static exhibits would stride a robot. Inspired by The Wizard of Oz, a costume was made of sheet tin, sized to fit ten-year-old Billy Enright, who was coached in appropriate movements and utterances.

To view these wonders, visitors would be carried through the marquee on a moving pavement, and for this aspect Fred drew upon his mechanical experience and contacts. He salvaged the elevator from a written-off harvester, and made a frame to hold it horizontally so that it passed through the marquee. It was driven by a small portable motor outside the marquee, adjusted so as to give a rate of progress around two or three miles an hour. A fixed handrail was provided to separate the audience from the exhibits and to help them keep their balance.

*****

For the Skylon, Andrew obtained a thirty-foot-high flagpole which he painted silver in the hope that it would look like metal. He had stakes driven into the ground in a circle about ten foot in diameter. Each stake leaned outwards and was about five foot high. His plan was to get a gang of helpers to haul the pole into an upright position in the centre of the circle by means of ropes attached to its top, and then to get a second gang to lift it off the ground by means of ropes attached to its bottom. The lower ropes would then be fastened to the stakes, and the upper ropes to tent pegs. Although this worked perfectly in Andrew's mind when he envisioned it, it was less successful on the recreation ground when attempted in reality.

The first part of the exercise took many attempts. Andrew had underestimated how lively the pole would be when no longer lying flat, and it took more men to control it than he had expected, but finally the pole was upright, albeit wavering. As soon as the second gang pulled on the bottom ropes to lift it, however, the devil seemed to possess it. The bottom swung to and fro, pulling its rope holders with it, while the top became equally wild, tugging its holders hither and thither. Looking upwards to see which way they should pull, the men cannoned into each other and lost their hold on the ropes. The pole came crashing down, helpers scattering to avoid being hit.

Repeated attempts ended in the same result. More helpers were recruited, until every available man and boy had hold of a rope. During a pause between two of the attempts, Peggy Parkin, the eleven-year-old bane of Billy Enright's life, stepped forward with some of her friends and offered to help.

You can just hop it, Peggy Parkin, Billy said scornfully. This is man's work. We don't want no girls.

The Festival's supposed to be for everybody, Peggy insisted.

Billy took a different view. No, it isn't, he said. It's about new inventions, and inventors are always men.

No they're not, retorted Peggy. What about . . . She racked her brain for a female inventor, but on the spur of the moment could only manage Florence Nightingale and her lamp?

Huh! Fat lot you know! She didn't invent the lamp, that was Humphrey Davy!

While Peggy was searching for a reply, Andrew Riley intervened. You'd better leave, little girl. You might get hurt.

Billy and Andrew did not know it, but they had just sealed the fate of the Festival of Nutcombe. It would be churlish to blame them. They had merely made the same mistake that men have been making since Adam first set eyes on Eve, and no doubt will continue to make until evolution creates a single-sex form of Homo sapiens.

*****

Elaine Strong had been in the Air Transport Auxiliary during the war, flying all types of warplanes, from Spitfire fighters to Lancaster bombers. After the war she returned to her office job, and found herself once again taking dictation from men, correcting their grammar, remembering their anniversaries and wives' birthdays, buying their biscuits, and making their tea. For this her remuneration was less than half the wage received by the lowest paid of the men she served. She hid her resentment while at work, but would expatiate upon the injustice when with her favourite niece, Peggy Parkin. She did not seek to indoctrinate the girl, using her more as an excuse to think aloud, but Peggy adored her aunt Elaine and absorbed her every word.

Peggy had formed a coterie of like-minded girls. They called themselves the Secret Sisterhood, and had a den where they would meet to discuss man's inhumanity to woman. Peggy had developed a fine rhetorical style addressing her disciples. Did Emily Pancakes die in vain? she would ask. Let each of us stand ready to throw ourselves in front of the king's horse when he is riding in the Derby. Stop him winning! That'll show him!

Following her rebuff by Billy and Andrew at the recreation ground, Peggy summoned a meeting of the Sisterhood.

Typical! she declaimed. You notice that they are repairing the scout hut. Are they repairing the guide hut? Oh no! Typical!

There isn't any guide hut, objected one of her more literal followers.

Exactly! Peggy exclaimed triumphantly.

There isn't even a guide troop, the sceptic insisted.

That's not the point. It's a matter of principle, Peggy declared. She had long since learned that an appeal to principle is the best argument for any case unsupported by hard facts. So we've got to do something about it, and I know what. This is what we are going to do, and she outlined her plan.

That evening Andrew Riley was seated in his armchair with pencil and paper, trying to think of a way to erect the Skylon. If he was the only one to fail to bring his project to fruition, he would remain an outsider forever. While he worried over the problem, his daughter Rosemary climbed onto his lap. Rosemary was the sort of little girl that women coo over. She had golden ringlets, blue eyes, dimpled cheeks, a rosebud mouth, and a lisp. She was also, at seven years of age, the youngest member of the Secret Sisterhood, and was acting under Peggy's instructions.

Daddy, she said, I know how to lift the Skylon.

Do you, dear? replied an absorbed Andrew. That's nice.

No, Daddy, I do. I really do.

Of course you do, dear. Now go along and play, that's a good girl. Daddy's busy.

Daddy, you're not listening! Listen to me!

If Rosemary had been standing on the floor, she would have stamped her little patent-leather clad foot, but even curled up on Andrew's lap the foot stamp was implicit in her tone. Andrew laid down his pencil and paper and gave his attention to his daughter.

I'm sorry, darling. I'm listening now. What do you want to tell me?

Instead of using ropes to lift the Skylon, why don't you use a net?

A net?

Yes, Daddy, a net, like this, and Rosemary picked up a crocheted doily from the side table. Only bigger, of course, she giggled.

Yes, darling, but daddy hasn't got a big net like that.

You can make one, silly, crochet it like a doily, only using rope instead of yarn.

But wouldn't that need an awfully big crochet hook, sweetheart?

Oh, Daddy, you are silly! You only need a crochet hook when it's fiddly and small. For something big, you can just use your hands.

Andrew began to wonder if this was true. He consulted his wife, to whom crochet was no mystery, and found that she shared Rosemary's faith in the concept.

The following morning he called upon Mrs Wagstaff with a large coil of fine rope and explained what he needed. By afternoon, her Ladies Circle was busy making the net. The ladies had improved upon the idea. In the centre they adjusted the tension and the number of stitches so as to make it concave, forming a sort of tightly knitted cup, into which the bottom of the pole would fit nicely. As they worked out beyond that, they ensured that the net was flat, and they gradually made the mesh looser and more widely spaced, so that the net took on the appearance of a spider's web, progressively more open towards the outside. They were gratified to be joined by Peggy Parkin and a few of her friends, eager to see how crochet was performed. As the ladies worked, they explained the techniques to the girls, how to make a chain, how to start another row, how to make a circular shape, and finally how to finish off.

You see, dears, Mrs Wagstaff explained, the piece is made of one continuous length of yarn - or in this case, of rope - which is formed into continuous loops. If you pull the end, it will unravel stitch by stitch, like it did when I showed you how to undo mistakes. So to finish off, you have to put the end through the last loop, like this, and pull it tight, like this. Then you can thread the loose end through a few stitches, like this, so that it doesn't hang down.

When the net was finished, it was everything that Andrew might have hoped for. It was quite a bulky item, being ten foot across, and the ladies were pleased when Peggy and the girls offered to carry it to the recreation ground. The girls formed a file and marched off with the rolled-up net on their shoulders. On the way to the recreation ground they made a detour to their den, where Peggy made a slight adjustment to the net. They then delivered it to Andrew at the recreation ground. His helpers unrolled it within the circle of stakes. The pole was laid down with its bottom end in the centre of the net, and the gang on the top ropes hauled it upright. A circle of men grasped the edge of the net and lifted. They hooked the net onto the stakes, then helped the other gang to pull the top ropes taut and fasten them to tent pegs. The Skylon was ready.

*****

On Guy Fawkes night it got dark about five o'clock. The bonfire was then lit, and the Festival got under way. The first event was the formal opening of the Festival Hall, the vicar correctly surmising that he would attract a bigger audience before other attractions became available. He made a brief speech and unveiled the plaque. It read:

NUTCOMBE FESTIVAL SCOUT HALL
V.XI.MCMLI
Amos Lovejoy fecit
Funerals to suit all pockets
Tel. Nutcombe 132

The vicar was disconcerted, although many thought it was not so much by the inclusion of Lovejoy's name as by the omission of his own. Amos later defended his choice of wording. I reckon that them as does the work deserves the credit.

After the unveiling came the fireworks. Flashes from sundry Catherine Wheels, Roman Candles, and Golden Fountains combined with the flames of the bonfire to light the Skylon from below. As the villagers consumed baked potatoes and roast chestnuts, they craned their necks to wonder at it, stretching up into the darkness above.

The interior of the Dome of Discovery was illuminated by electric lights powered by a portable generator. As each set of visitors moved bumpily through on the moving pavement, admiring the television and the moon rocket, Billy, in the tin costume, put on his rehearsed display. Fred pretended to turn a switch on Billy's chest, and Billy jerked into motion, announcing in an artificial monotone I am Robert Robot. What is your command?

Fred then gave a series of orders, Turn left, Stop, and so on, and Billy obeyed.

At one performance, in response to the robot's What is your command? a thin treble piped up.

Let's see you turn a cartwheel, Billy.

Billy clanked pugnaciously forward and glared towards the audience through the slits in his helmet.

I heard that! he declared, in his natural voice. I know it was you, Peggy Parkin! Just you wait!

Garn! came the reply. Go splash your oars, Robert Row Boat!

Billy refused to return to robotic mode until assured that the moving belt had removed Peggy from the Dome.

Fred reminded each audience before it left that at six thirty there would be a special performance, when the rockets of the moon ship would be ignited.

*****

As six thirty approached, the crowd moved towards the Dome, while Peggy and the Sisters stole away towards the Skylon. Before delivering the net, Peggy had loosened the end stitch and had tied a string to it. She now walked around under the edge of the net looking for it. When she found it, she pulled at the string until the end of the rope came out of the last loop. With the free end of rope in her hand, she pulled steadily and undid the last loop. She pulled again, and another loop came undone. She continued undoing loops, and as more rope became free, her companions also took hold of it and added their efforts to hers. The more girls there were on the rope, the faster the loops were undone, until at last, like a victorious tug-of-war team, the Sisters were charging backwards and the whole outer circle of the net unravelled.

Freed from its supporting stakes, the net fell to the ground, and the bottom of the pole fell with it. The top of the pole was still attached to its bracing ropes, but they were now slack, and the bottom of the pole was free to slide across the grass, uprooting as it went several of the marquee's tent pegs. The marquee sagged drunkenly sideways. The flag pole came to rest against the portable motor which powered the moving pavement. The impact knocked the throttle control of the motor fully open.

*****

Inside the Dome, Fred had announced that the grand finale was about to begin, and had lit the fuse which would ignite all twelve of the moon ship's rockets at once. The audience held its breath in anticipation, and then in alarm as the marquee above them swayed and lurched sideways. Before they could make out what was happening, the moving pavement accelerated to full speed, jerking them off their feet and hurtling them outside in a tangle of limbs. Fred rushed after them to stop the motor. Only Billy was left inside the Dome.

The moon ship was not tethered. Fred had provided the rockets for their visual effect, overlooking their kinetic function. As they ignited, the rockets lifted the moon ship from the ground. Not being symmetrically balanced, it fell over, and the thrust of the rockets drove it across the floor of the arena. As it went, the rockets set fire to the box of film behind the television exhibit, and the flames spread to the canvas of the marquee. The marquee was so weakened that when the nose of the moon ship pushed against its side flaps, it came adrift completely. The moon ship continued its progress across the recreation ground draped in burning canvas.

The slits in his helmet restricted Billy's view, and he had no idea what was happening. As the canvas of the marquee moved, it first knocked him down, and then slid over him, so that mercifully he was outside before the conflagration spread. Less fortunately, a trailing guy rope became entangled in his costume, and he was dragged across the grass on his back behind the flaming moon ship.

Peggy gazed upon the results of her handiwork in awe, suffused with a feeling of empowerment. Addressing her victorious troops she declared, Sisters, I have seen the future, and it is ours!

*****


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