IV

Wardle was softly, almost reverently, shaking his head. "What a magnificent piece of engineering," he said in a whisper.

"It looks a bit low," observed the doctor.

The capsule did seem to be dangerously low. From where we were standing it looked like it would clip the church steeple.

"Stop it someone!" Reverend Black cried, fearing the worst.

"No, it’s all right," I said. "It’s going to miss."

Suddenly capsule and church collided. We heard the echoes of the impact rolling towards us, followed by the pitter patter of falling masonry. In that moment, I felt my heart sink to somewhere around my knees. A terrible, deathly silence descended upon us. I turned to see that the vicar had turned a bright beetroot colour, and seeing he was about to explode with fury, I diplomatically moved one pace backwards.

"You've demolished my steeple!" he roared.

"I say, it didn't half give it one hell of a clout, what!" Doctor Wentworth said, greatly amused by the incident.

"That church has been standing for four hundred years," Reverend Black fumed. "Look what you vandals have done!"

I tried to placate him, though I must admit that I had never before seen a man of the cloth with such bloodlust in his eyes. "Calm down please, reverend - it's just an accident, that’s all."

"Yes. old boy," said Doctor Wentworth, coming to my aid. "Accidents will happen. I think you're overreacting just a little." He pointed to the damaged steeple. "Look, it's just taken the pointy bit off the top of the spire. Soon have that fixed: a dab of mortar and a new weathercock and it will be as good as new."

"Oh, you're a buffoon Wentworth!" Reverend Black responded, most uncharitably. "I shall go and get the police. I shall write to my MP. No, I shall contact the Bishop!" He started to leave. "You won't get away with this," he warned. "I shall make it my business to see that Maitland's ridiculous project is stopped immediately."

Once Reverend Black had gone, the doctor turned to me and sighed. "Something tells me that the vicar is not a happy man," he intimated.

"The vicar is the least of our problems, Doctor Wentworth," I said. "Right at this moment I’m rather more concerned about my uncle."

Mr Wardle, obviously thinking ahead of me, had already fetched the cart. He drew up alongside us and we jumped on the back. "I think the capsule came down on that hillside," he said, pointing beyond the shattered steeple, to a dust cloud rising slowly into the air. Wardle geed on the horse and we moved off.

We trundled along a rough track that snaked up the hillside. There was long grass on either side, swaying gently in the breeze and making it virtually impossible to see anything. However, it didn’t take us long to a broad furrow of churned up earth, and there, at the end of it, the capsule. The door was open, indicating that Uncle Frederick had been thrown clear. We started to search the immediate vicinity for any sign of him.

"Freddie!" the doctor shouted. "Freddie, old boy, are you there?"

"Uncle?" I called as I combed the long grass. Suddenly we all heard a deep, aching groan that could only have been my uncle. Doctor Wentworth found him first, lying in a clump of grass and looking rather the worse for wear.

"Are you all right, old chap?" the doctor said as he knelt beside him.

We helped Uncle Frederick to sit upright. He looked around him, apparently in a state of some confusion. "Wow," he breathed. "What a ride!"

I crouched down in front of him and held up three fingers. "Uncle?" I said, fighting to keep his attention. "Uncle, how many fingers am I holding up?"

He smiled at me like a simpleton. "My head hurts, Matilda," he said. "Fetch the bacon and we'll have a party."

"He's delirious," Wardle observed.

"Took a bit of a knock, I shouldn't wonder," Doctor Wentworth said. "He's probably concussed. We ought to get him to a doctor."

"But you are a doctor," I pointed out.

"So I am!" Doctor Wentworth replied. "I say, that’s jolly handy." He bent to examine my uncle, looking deep into his eyes.

"Ah Lord Snowdon!" Uncle Frederick said quite merrily. "I see that you've met my proctologist already. How many times have I told you: never phone me when I'm on the golf course?"

The doctor moved back, letting my uncle fall back onto the ground as he gave us his verdict. "Yes," he’s concussed, he concluded.

I looked down at him. "Well, he is now," I said.

"We should get him back to the house immediately," Doctor Wentworth said firmly. "This man needs complete rest and relaxation."

Suddenly my uncle reared up, clutching at Wardle’s sleeve. There was a wild look in his eye, and I knew in that instant that there would be no hope of dissuading him from continuing with this perilous venture.

"A bigger catapult!" he hissed, the passion burning through his befuddled, semi-conscious thoughts. "That’s what we need Wardle, build me a bigger catapult."

And with that he fell back to the ground. Doctor Wentworth and I looked at each other, both sharing the same grave misgiving, then we hefted Uncle Frederick up onto the cart.

Over the next few weeks, Wardle and I worked tirelessly to refine the catapult, calculating optimum weight ratios and experimenting with angles of flight. During this time my uncle was confined to bed, but he still took a keen interest in our activities, directing our efforts as best he could. He still had occasional moments of delirium, but with proper medical supervision he was making a gradual recovery. All seemed to be going well until one day, whilst scanning the early morning papers, I chanced across a most disturbing piece of news. I wasted no time in rushing up to my uncle’s room, and burst in upon him just as Doctor Wentworth was about to administer a raspberry and vanilla flavoured enema.

"Uncle!"

"Vincent, thank god you're here!" Uncle Frederick cried. "Have you seen what this man is trying to do to me?"

"It's for your own good, Freddie," Doctor Wentworth said, as he stood with his equipment poised.

"Never mind about that," I said, waving the newspaper. "Look at this!"

My uncle suddenly brightened. "Have our bingo numbers come up?" he asked, flushed with optimism.

"No, there’s a story here about Nathaniel Slater."

At the mention of that name, my uncle suddenly became most grave. Slater was also an inventor and engineer, and Uncle Frederick’s sworn rival. Long ago they had been partners, and together they had successfully developed a system of pneumatic shoulder pads for hod carriers. To celebrate this achievement they had visited an Indian restaurant and it was there that the tragedy had occurred. Half of Slater’s face had been blown off by a chicken korma, leaving him horribly disfigured, and after all these years, he still blamed my uncle for the accident.

"What does it say?" Uncle Frederick asked quietly.

I folded back the paper, taking a moment to crease it neatly, then cleared my throat and began to read aloud.

"Celebrated engineer and innovator Nathaniel Slater has announced his intention to become the first human man to reach the planet Mars by trampoline. Speaking from his Oxford workshop, Mr Slater said ‘We are witnessing the beginning of a new era. My invention, the Slater Sprimgomatic Trampolator, will revolutionise our whole concept of transport. We are all bouncing towards our future on a non-stop trampoline to the stars.’"

I looked up from the newspaper and saw that my uncle’s face was grim. "By gad," he hissed. "Slater means to steal my thunder!" He gestured anxiously at the paper. "Does it say when he plans to make this attempt?"

I searched the article quickly and found the appropriate paragraph. "Next Tuesday."

"Next Tuesday!" exclaimed Uncle Frederick. He slammed his fist down hard, but as it only impacted on the surrounding bedclothes it did little to vent his frustration. "I will not allow him to eclipse my achievement. I shall make my attempt on Venus this very afternoon!"

"But uncle!" I protested.

"Everything is ready, is it not?"

"Well yes," I replied. "But -"

"Then this afternoon it will be!" Uncle Frederick affirmed. He started to lever himself out of bed, much to the consternation of the doctor,.

"Frederick, I forbid it!" Wentworth said. "You haven’t fully recovered yet."

"Oh, Wentworth, for heaven's sake!" Uncle Frederick said tetchily. "If I haven't recovered by now, I never will. I've had pills, I've had potions. I've had my head sandpapered and bathed in turps. Yesterday you pumped all the blood out of my body, boiled it up and pumped it all back. If I've survived all that, I am sure I can survive anything. No, I've made up my mind."

"But uncle," I pleaded with him, "won’t you please reconsider?"

Uncle Frederick got shakily to his feet. I knew that there was no chance of him seeing reason - or rather, he was too possessed by reasons of his own. He was a stubborn soul, and once he got an idea into his head, it was impossible to shift it.

"Make the preparations Vincent," he instructed me stoically. "This afternoon, I fly to Venus!"

There was a curious air of tranquillity as Wardle and myself made ready the catapult. I think that we were both struck by a sense of occasion: the feeling that history was in the making. At three o’clock everything was in order, and Uncle Frederick emerged from the house, clad in his crash helmet and tin foil survival suit. As he mounted the steps to the capsule, I pleaded with him one more time.

"Must you go through with this right now?" I said. "There are more tests that we could carry out; more calculations on the angle of take off."

"There are always more tests to be done," Uncle Frederick said softly. "Always more calculations to make. But until someone actually flies in this thing, we shall never know for certain if we are right. If we become overcautious, we may never get this thing off the ground."

I couldn’t help but frown, and seeing my concern, my uncle smiled to reassure me. "Now don’t you worry yourself, young Vincent," he chastised me. "I predict that this will be a great success. I shall be quite safe and secure in my survival capsule. I have some bread, some milk, some cheese. I have a good book to read should I grow tired of looking out of the window at the stars. And most importantly, I have a sixteen piece earthenware tea set."

I raised my eyebrows in surprise. "A tea set?" I repeated. "What on earth for?"

"A gift for the Pixie People," Uncle Frederick explained. "It is a well documented fact that the Pixie People of Venus have no concept of pottery. My gift will be a cause of some excitement."

"Of course," I felt bound to agree.

"Well then, must get on," Uncle Frederick said matter-of-factly. "I can’t stand around here chatting all day, otherwise I’ll miss my launch window."

He was about to climb up into the capsule, when the most raucous and disagreeable cacophony assailed our ears. We turned on our heels to see a mob of angry villagers stalking towards us across the meadow. They were chanting and shouting in the most fearsome way, and at their head, shouting the loudest of them all, was Reverend Black.

"I don’t like the look of this," I muttered.

"Stop this abomination!" the vicar shouted. "Stop it now!"

As the mob neared us, my uncle, refusing to bow to intimidation, squared up to them. "What is the meaning of this?" he demanded.

"The meaning of this, Mr Maitland," said Reverend Black, "is to prevent this hideous and unnatural act from taking place. This machine of yours is nothing short of an abomination. We do not want this sort of thing happening on our doorstep, and so I have requested that the council officially declares this area a catapult free zone."

"You have no right to do this," Uncle Frederick said firmly. "Sir, you should know that I consider it a grave crime to stand in the way of progress, and your blinkered attitude disheartens me."

"I will not allow this," the reverend insisted.

"Reverend Black, you simply cannot stop it," my Uncle Frederick told him. "Vincent," he called to me. "Make ready!"

With that parting shot, my uncle climbed up into the capsule and pulled the door closed behind him. It slammed in his wake with a solid, metallic clang, whose echo, even now, seems to reverberate in my ears.

However, Reverend Black was determined that Uncle Frederick should not defy him. "Maitland!" he shouted. "Maitland, come out of there this instant!" He rushed forward and started scrabbling at the hatchway, trying to find a way in.

"Reverend Black, please come away from there!" I demanded. "We are all set for blast off."

"No, I forbid it!" Reverend Black insisted. He turned to the angry villagers and raised his voice. "We must not suffer this evil scheme to continue," he told them. "Destroy this machine!"

Driven to distraction by their rage, whipped into a frenzy by the vicar’s words, the villagers set about wrecking the catapult. We tried valiantly to stop them but were overcome by the sheer weight of numbers.

"Stop it!" I cried. "Stop this at once!"

I turned to the reverend, hoping that I might appeal to his sense of reason, but it soon became clear that he was beyond that noble attribute. He had climbed onto the front of the capsule and was hammering repeatedly on the riveted iron plates.

"Come out Maitland!" he shouted. "It's no good hiding in there!"

I tried to drag him away but he lashed out and sent me spinning to the ground.

"You'll burn in hell for this, Maitland," Reverend Black screamed furiously. "This contraption is the work of the devil."

Climbing to my feet, I noticed that one of the villagers had a hold of the ripcord. "Hey you," I shouted. "Put that down!"

He ignored me.

"Put it down!" I repeated frantically. "You are tampering with forces beyond your ken."

The vicar, meanwhile, had worked himself up into a state of apoplexy, and was beating the capsule so violently that his knuckles were raw.

"We're going to pluck your eyeballs out, Maitland," he howled. "We're going to rip your head off and spit down your neck!"

But Reverend Black was not my main source of concern. The man with the ripcord was picking at the knot that held it secure. "No!" I screamed desperately. I made a lunge for him, but I was too late. There was a huge elastic twang, a phenomenal, ear cracking ‘whoosh’, and then a stunned silence descended. When I turned around, the capsule was gone.

And so was the vicar.

That, I am afraid to say, was the last that anyone saw of my Uncle Frederick; likewise the Reverend Black. These days, of course, voyages to other planets are practically commonplace - though rocketry has replaced catapult technology and my uncle's place in this history of the space race is all but forgotten.

But I still wonder about him. Did he ever reach Venus, I ask myself? Maybe, just maybe, he is sitting in some palace on that other world - King of the Pixie People, with his sixteen piece earthenware tea set by his side. In reality, I suspect that the truth is far stranger.

The other day I heard of a curious thing. There is an Indian tribe living deep in the jungles of South America who worship a strange and mysterious god - a god who appears to them for a few brief moments every year. For the last eighty years tribesmen have come from all around to gather on the slopes of one of their highest mountains and witness the manifestation of this peculiar entity. He appears to them as a man dressed in black, riding a giant silver bullet, and he tears across the sky, shrieking strange things before disappearing over the horizon. The Indians have no inkling of the meaning of these odd words, but they have been able to repeat them phonetically for the benefit of Western explorers. It is, apparently, a heart breaking and mournful cry, and it sounds something akin to, ‘Help! Get me off this bleeding thing!’

Of course, it could just be coincidence ... but I'd like to think that it isn't.

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