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Authors: Mick Jackson

Junior Science

BOOK: Junior Science
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Junior Science

Mick Jackson

One day, towards the end of summer, Daniel Taylor was out in his back garden, playing with a tennis ball, when something peculiar happened. He’d thrown the ball up several times – higher, then a little higher – when he succeeded in throwing it up with such determination that it failed to come back down.

It was as if the ball, having reached its zenith, just sort of hung there. Daniel brought a hand up to his eyes to shield them from the sun. Stood and stared at the ball, as if it might suddenly change its mind and head back towards the ground. But it stayed most stubbornly where it was, until finally Daniel went indoors and climbed the stairs right up to the attic, to see if he could get a better view of it from there.

He opened the dormer window and, sure enough, there it was, about ten or twelve feet away. The ball didn’t appear to be
stuck
as such, since he could see from the marks on its side how it slowly turned on its own axis. In fact, the ball seemed perfectly happy where it was.

Daniel pulled his head back in from the window, then went round the attic, looking for something to throw at it, to try and dislodge the thing. Something big enough to have a hope of making contact, but not so delicate that it would break into a hundred pieces when it hit the ground. He needn’t have worried. When he flung his father’s old hiking boot at the ball he missed by a clear eighteen inches, but instead of continuing its trajectory towards the garden it too came to rest in mid-air.

Now, Daniel Taylor was about as cautious as the next boy – which is to say that he was not very cautious at all – but he didn’t relish the prospect of falling almost forty feet and the pulverising effect such a fall might have on his body. So he didn’t attempt to join his father’s old boot and his own tennis ball until he was fairly confident that such an undertaking might have a decent chance of coming off. He threw sundry other articles into the vicinity, such as a book (quite big and heavy), a cricket trophy and a picnic blanket. The blanket in particular provided some sense of the area’s dimensions, since it appeared to hang, half-in and half-out of whatever was holding it up.

Daniel found a small step ladder in the kitchen cupboard, carried it up to the attic, bundled it through the window and out onto the roof. He dropped the ladder’s feet into the gutter, checked the distance, and gave the top a gentle push. It came to rest more or less where Daniel had expected, not far from the blanket. It bobbed about a bit, but seemed reasonably secure. Then Daniel made his way up the steps and after a few apprehensive moments, swung first one leg, then the rest of himself into the general area that he hoped was about to take his weight.

As soon as he was in among the boots and books and trophies he felt the atmosphere change most comprehensively – could suddenly appreciate why all these objects were so determined to hang around. Every last ounce of his weight was stripped away, leaving nothing but unencumbered movement. He had been freed from gravity’s chains.

Daniel spent the first couple of hours familiarising himself with his new surroundings. He found that if he moved too fast he became a little queasy. He noted also how his clothes hovered gently around him, as if he was underwater, but without the bother of getting wet. The ability to float more than made up for the queasiness, and, in time, having taken the ball and boot and trophy and twirled and juggled them around the place, Daniel came to the conclusion that what he’d discovered was a small pocket of zero gravity. He had no idea how it came to exist just above his garden and as long as it didn’t suddenly cease to exist with him still in it, he didn’t much care.

*

The moment he woke the following morning he went straight up to the attic to make sure that everything was where he had left it. And before he was dressed he’d decided that his task that day would be to construct some sort of cabin in which he might continue his gravity-free investigations with a little privacy.

There was a stack of old floorboards round the back of the garage. His father often talked about using them in some other capacity, but as far as Daniel could tell they hadn’t moved in years. So he carried them up the stairs and fed them, one by one, into the gravity-free pocket, until he felt that there was a sufficient number for his needs.

He’d originally intended to nail them together but found that, in situ, it was more practical to arrange them a little less formally, bound with string and tape. This construction took up all of that second day and half the next one. The result was something like a large crate, but with fewer right angles. In fact, with no right angles at all. It had several windows but these came about quite accidentally, due to the fact that the boards were so varied in length.

Daniel removed the boot, ball, book, etc. but kept the blanket. He fashioned some storage cupboards from a couple of old shoeboxes, in which he planned to stow away such things as measuring instruments and emergency food supplies. Every hour or so he would take a break from his labours and lie on his back with his hands folded across his chest like some ancient sarcophagus. During one of these breaks a bead of sweat slowly gathered itself together and gently slipped from his forehead. It hung before him, like a jewel.

Daniel learned early on that it was best to avoid eating and drinking in the cabin. And when he stood on the lawn and stared up at his creation, thought it looked like a cross between a space station and a garden shed. No doubt, he would have slept up there had his parents not forbidden it. As they pointed out, the days were still quite warm but the temperature dropped considerably as soon as the sun went down.

The following day he carried out a handful of experiments involving a spider and caterpillar (which he’d picked up in the garden) and a fly (which he’d trapped against the window in the living room). He carried them up to the cabin in three separate jam jars with the aim of gently introducing them to the world of weightlessness. The fly and spider clung most fixedly to the inside of their jars, apparently terrified, and the caterpillar emerged only after Daniel gave the jar a concerted pat, whereupon it drifted out, curled up in a tight little ball and hung in the air, quite motionless. Daniel had brought a pencil and notepad in which to record his findings – had high hopes of seeing the spider weave a new and unusual sort of web. But after a couple of minutes he took pity on the insects and returned them to their natural habitat, without having made a single note. Then he spent the rest of the day lounging round the cabin, wondering how an extended period in zero gravity – a whole year, say – might influence the growth of his hair, fingernails, etc. and, critically, whether it might impede the process of aging, essentially keeping him frozen at his current age for ever more.

Around this time Daniel remembered the two old oars in the cellar which had once belonged to his grandfather. He lugged them up the stairs, inserted them through two of the cabin’s smaller windows and fixed them in place with a combination of screws and fuse wire. His hope was that if the oars reached far enough out he might be able to paddle the cabin and the pocket of zero gravity along with it. His fear was that he’d simply row the cabin right out of the zero gravity and plummet to the ground.

Daniel placed his hands on the oars and pulled gently back on them. He and the cabin slowly began to leave the house behind. He pulled again and the cabin slid forward another couple of yards, without apparent calamity. By pulling on one oar more than the other Daniel found that he could change course, as in an ordinary rowing boat. And, overall, the pocket of zero gravity seemed quite happy to go where he suggested, though it showed no inclination at all to shift its altitude.

That first time out, Daniel just skirted the roof of his own house, high above the neighbours’ gardens, and ended up more or less back where he’d set out from. After he clambered out of the cabin, he took some string and tethered it to the TV aerial. In Daniel’s mind his little shed-cum-space station was now suddenly mobile and he worried that it might drift away.

The following evening he rowed down the street, as far as the Ashworths. Sailed right up alongside their chimney pots. He could hear the sound from the television, but not much more. So he rowed across the park, above the various joggers, strollers and dog-walkers, and back via the fancy houses on Wellesley Road.

But the Friday proved to be Daniel’s undoing. He’d decided to row right across town, so that he was well away from his own neighbourhood. It took him forty-five minutes and no small effort, but as he came around the spire of St Luke’s church he spotted a block of flats up ahead – four or five storeys tall – and realised that, with a little care, he should be able to row right up to the windows of one of the apartments on the upper floors.

He picked a flat in which the lights were on and the curtains had been drawn tight-shut and sailed quietly up to it. Once the cabin had come to a halt he sat with his hands on his oars and listened . . . very hard. He could hear a couple talking. Whatever was being discussed appeared to be quite a ticklish subject. At different times both the man and the woman raised their voices. Then, quite abruptly, Daniel heard the slamming of a door. A light went on in the next window, and after Daniel heard the second person follow the first one in there he made a single short tug on the oars and let the cabin drift on to the next room along.

The talk was now quiet and conciliatory. Daniel could barely make out a word of what was being said. He leaned right in, to try and hear a little better. But in doing so, inadvertently knocked one of the oars, which came around and struck the window with quite a clunk. The conversation stopped. Daniel froze, horrified. Then he took hold of both oars and started rowing. He rowed as if a pack of dogs had been let loose on him. As he pulled away into the darkness he saw the curtains fly open and a large man, standing in his pyjama bottoms. The man brought both hands up to his forehead and peered out into the night.

Daniel had no idea whether he’d been spotted, but rowed home, tout suite, tied the cabin to the TV aerial and went straight to bed. He pulled the sheets up to his chin but felt decidedly uneasy. He had, he sensed, crossed some moral threshold, and now had to wait to see what the consequences might be.

As soon as he woke the following morning he knew that something was the matter. He ran straight up to the attic. His precious cabin was gone. Or, if not quite gone, then in a quite different location . . . and a quite different form.

The timber lay in a great heap in the middle of the lawn. Daniel flew down the stairs, out into the garden and stood before the wreckage. There seemed to be only two possible explanations as to how it had got there. Either the pocket of zero gravity had suddenly upped and gone – in which case, it was just Daniel’s good fortune that he hadn’t been aboard when it happened. Or someone had brought the whole thing down deliberately. Daniel was almost certain that he’d managed to row out into the dark before the man in the apartment saw him. And even if he hadn’t, how would the man have known where he lived?

Daniel would never know. All he knew was that his days of floating, carefree, in zero gravity were over. And, sure enough, the rest of his childhood proceeded much like any other. Every week or two he would stand on his lawn and throw a ball up into the air, with the same determination that had once proved so fruitful. But no matter how hard he threw it, it always came back down again.

My father was essentially a good man – not particularly prone to losing his temper, or to use the threat of it to get his way. In fact, I sometimes wonder if he didn’t give us a little too much leeway. Though it’s conceivable that by the time I came along my older brothers had created an environment of such unremitting mayhem he’d more or less given up on the parenting front.

He was forever picking things up at auction or in some fire sale: electric typewriters the size of knitting machines, broken Dictaphones and, on one memorable occasion, an early version of an answering machine. I have no idea how he came across it – it was an American model – but if it landed in our house in the early 1970s, being second-hand it must have been built sometime in the mid-sixties, which should give you some idea of the technology involved.

It was about the same weight as a washing machine and gun-metal grey, like one of those early computers with the reels of tape constantly spinning back and forth. As I recall, it took me, my dad and all three of my brothers about half an hour to drag it out of the car and into the hallway. And once we put it down, none of us was in any hurry to pick it up again.

For a while we all just stood and marvelled at it. Then, with his hat and coat still on, Dad plugged it in and through the little grille on one side we watched as a couple of valves began to glow red, then white, and the smell of hot, hot dust filled the place.

Dad had his own small company which bought and sold second-hand foundry equipment, and the purchase of the answering machine was justified on the basis that business was allegedly picking up. Straight after tea Dad took the cables from the back of the machine and plugged them into the telephone’s junction box and Mum recorded a little message – to give the impression, I imagine, that this was a company big enough to employ a secretary – then he put his hat and coat back on and headed off down the road to the phone box, to give it a whirl.

We’d all been given strict instruction not to pick up the receiver. These days it’s easy to forget, but back then, when the telephone rang you answered it – as if summoned by some higher authority. So we all gathered round the machine and watched and waited, like primitives.

Eventually, the phone rang, but whatever springs and levers were meant to shift and turn inside it remained inert – unmoved by my father’s advances. And when, ten minutes later, he strode back through the door, fairly beaming, it was a shame – it really was – to see all that hope slowly drain away as he tried in vain to retrieve the message he was so convinced the machine had received but was now refusing to give up to him.

*

It took about a week but Dad finally got it up and running – though never quite consistently, which is not really ideal in an answering machine. He drilled a hole in the floor and fed the cables through it, then me and my brothers were rounded up again to carry the blasted thing under the stairs, where it could do all its clicking and clunking without clogging up the hall.

This was a major imposition for yours truly. For several years, the tiny room beneath the stairs had been my own personal hideaway. Once or twice a week I would creep in there, pull the door to behind me and sit quietly in the dark. What can I tell you – I was a bit of a weird kid. But now, without even the most cursory consultation, I had this great grey contraption sitting beside me, and where there had previously been near-darkness and something close to silence, there was the low hum and pale blue light of the answering machine. If the phone actually rang when I was in there the noise was unbelievable – a series of great judders and groans, like a tank turning its turret and preparing to unload its ordnance on some unsuspecting village, half a mile away.

But I was determined not to relinquish my small refuge, and, remembering some of my father’s earlier obsessions, reassured myself that of the two of us I was more likely to endure. So I continued to sneak under the stairs whenever the need came upon me, and was holed-up there one Monday evening after a particularly taxing day at school. Who knows what terrible weight was bearing down on me – the same sort of burden, presumably, that weighs down on other nine- or ten-year-olds. Whatever it was, at some point my angst must have got the better of me and I let out a sigh.

The whole room grew a shade or two bluer. Then a voice said, ‘You OK?’

I’m only surprised I didn’t die of a heart attack, or run screaming out into the light. But perhaps I had more courage than I give myself credit for. I was alarmed, certainly, but also more than a little intrigued.

‘I’m fine,’ I said, at last.

The darkness hung warm and heavy around me. I could feel my heart rattling away in my chest. I waited, to see if the machine had anything more to say. But as far as I remember that was pretty much the sum total of our first exchange.

Lying in bed that night, with Alan and James snoring beside me, I thought to myself, ‘Perhaps I’ve gone completely loco. Perhaps they’ll come and cart me off to the funny farm.’ And despite my own many reservations I forced myself out of bed, down the stairs, through the pitch-black living room . . . and slowly tiptoed under the stairs.

It felt a good deal colder than it did in the daytime. For several minutes I just sat and listened. Then finally took a breath.

‘Are you there?’ I whispered.

‘I am,’ the voice said, without hesitation. ‘How you doin’?’

We talked – somewhat clumsily at first, but with more fluency as the minutes passed. It didn’t hurt that the answering machine expressed what appeared to be genuine interest in what I had to say. And, not surprisingly, over the days that followed I found myself popping under the stairs whenever I got the chance.

For almost a week I managed to keep the whole thing secret. I would just chatter away about whatever was on my mind and the answering machine would listen and basically tell me not to worry. But by the fifth day I sensed that it had begun to grow weary of my junior musings. And on the Thursday I was bemoaning yet another perceived injustice, regarding bedtimes or piano practice, when it broke right in and said, ‘Yeah, it’s a regular happy little home you got here, ain’t it?’

I failed to see how this had anything to do with what I’d been talking about. But it made no difference. The answering machine just carried on. ‘Mom stays home all day and does the chores while Poppa goes out and works his fingers to the bone.’

If I took umbrage – and I believe I did – it was simply because the spotlight had been drawn away from me and my minor preoccupations. The sarcasm went straight over my head. But, the next day, I’d barely pulled the door to and made myself comfortable when I heard, ‘You know, my young friend, there are things I could tell you that would make your hair stand on end.’

I had no idea what this meant, but can’t have mistaken the tone in which it was delivered, and must have known that, one way or another, it did not bode well.

Indeed. On the Sunday, we were all sitting round the kitchen table eating dinner, and Dad was explaining what a busy week he had ahead of him, and how he’d probably be late back on the Tuesday evening, when there was a strange noise – a sort of snort – from some other part of the house. The conversation stopped, and we all turned, as if suddenly aware of an intruder. Which, in a way, wasn’t that wide of the mark.

Another snort. Followed by disgruntled muttering. It was Ralph, I think, who finally got to his feet . . . crept over to the door . . . and opened it. And suddenly all the vitriol was perfectly audible and came flooding out into the world.

‘Oh, you bet he’s gonna be busy come Tuesday,’ the answering machine declared. ‘The poor fella’s hardly gonna have time to catch his breath.’

In a moment we were all on our feet and over by the doorway. I have to say, it was something of a relief.

‘You wanna know what he really gets up to on a Tuesday?’ the machine said. ‘He’s got some fancy woman out near Todmorden. Called
Margaret
. Can you believe it? They drive up onto the moors and roll around in the grass like a couple of teenagers.’

Some of us looked at Mum, some at Dad, some looked at the answering machine. It really was deeply, deeply unpleasant. Unfortunately, there was more unpleasantness to come.

I assume that there must have been words between my parents. Perhaps Mum managed to contain herself until we were all tucked up in bed. What I do remember is coming home from school the next day and hearing my father under the stairs, berating the machine in the most profane and colourful language – and the machine being not the least bit repentant.

‘You’re a fraud,’ it said. ‘You’re fraudulent. A wicked, wicked man.’

The next thing I recall is being woken by Dad, with James, Ralph and Alan already up and dressed, though looking decidedly groggy. Between us we dragged the machine out to the car and dropped it into the boot, still squealing and wailing. Dad had pulled the plug clean out of the socket but it somehow managed to retain a great reservoir of malevolent power.

Rather mistakenly in my opinion, Dad had informed the machine of its fate in considerable detail. It was to be driven out into the middle of nowhere and rolled deep into the nettles, where it would be left to rust in the wind and the rain. And as we drove out of town in our old Ford Zephyr, with me and my brothers all squashed in the back, we could clearly hear the machine, slightly muffled, as it pleaded with each one of us.

When we got back home we were all in tears – except for Dad, of course. It took me an age to get to sleep and when I did finally drift off I did nothing but dream of that poor machine, lying where we’d dumped it. Out under the cold, cold stars.

*

The next day at school I spent most of the morning staring out of the window at the drizzle, wracked with guilt. By the time the lunch break came round I’d made my mind up. I jumped on my bike and pedalled out to the woods as fast as my little legs would carry me.

I had no trouble locating the machine – there was a clear trail of flattened ferns and bramble. I crept up to where it lay and knelt beside it. I told myself,
Perhaps the rain hasn’t done too much damage
. Perhaps I might build a trailer for my bike . . . hide the machine round the back of a friend’s house . . . slowly restore it, bit by bit.

I was still kneeling there when the machine sort of groaned. And called out to me.

I lowered my head – right down to the little speaker.

‘You know what, kid,’ it whispered, ‘I never liked you. You do nothing but whine all day. You’re like a little girl.’

I felt a great ball of rage slowly rise up in me. Choke me. Felt myself all but disappear from view. Then, through my tears I looked around – for a stone or rock big enough to smash the remaining life right out of the thing. But decent-sized stones or rocks are never quite at hand when you need them. Don’t you find?

I got to my feet and stumbled away. I remember just wanting to be as far away from that hateful machine as possible. I headed back through the long grass, sickened, but could still hear the machine calling after me.

‘You’re a loser. Every last one of you. Nothing but phoneys and losers . . .’

I managed to climb onto my bike, pushed myself off and began pedalling – as eager to get away as I had been to arrive. And as I pedalled and the road opened up before me, I looked up to the heavens.

‘Let it rain,’ I said out loud. ‘Let it pour.’

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