One morning Ego got a notice in the post to the effect that a Technical Meeting of the British Rocket Society would be held that evening in Watford.
Ego was on the Technical Committee and a leading light in this organization, and he'd persuaded me to become a member. How, I don't know. It must have been in the days when Ego's personality impressed me, and I thought he was what he thought he was.
The rocket was the answer to everything. It seemed that the B.R.S. had made it a law of nature that a rocket should be able to travel in a vacuum and as there was a lot of vacuum between here and the Moon they wanted to fire a rocket through it to show off their new law.
Not only that, they wanted to ride in it. They'd designed a compartment in the thing to carry three men-I suggested four, for bridge, but they replied coldly that they hadn't yet tampered with the mathematics of Fuel Ratio to Load, though they also ind icated that it wasn't past them if they chose.
So I said, "Yes...I quite see your point," and didn't, and they knew I didn't, and I knew that they knew I didn't-we left it diplomatically at that, I'm just not technically minded. For years I have thrown fountain pens away when they ran out of the ink the shopman put in.
Now here was Ego pushing me into a Technical Meeting, to mix with people who shot expressions like "adiabatic expansion" and "stoichiometric amount" at each other and, moreover, appeared to know what they meant. I shrank inwardly.
"Is it really necessary for me to come tonight!" I said. "After all my duty lies here by the hearth...I ought to lay some lino in the kitchen."
"Your duty to Man always comes first," said Ego ponderously. "You have the honour to be numbered among the pioneers of Space Travel, who are planning a journey of even greater significance than the voyage of Columbus-Man's first falterin g steps from his mother planet. The exploration of the Universe lies at hand-and you talk of laying linoleum in a back kitchen."
Ego goes off in that vein at any mention of the keywords "Moon" or "rocket." Now he went off about the outer planets and lost himself in interstellar space.
"Shall we be back in time for supper?" I asked.
Ego paused, dizzily suspended somewhere between Alpha Centauri and the Horse's Head (Neck?) Nebula, made a mental grasp for support, missed, and came back to the "mother planet" with a bump.
"No," he said flatly. "The custom is to take some food with us-sandwiches, cakes, or the like-and have them at Mrs. Robinson's house.
But when the time came, I'd completely forgotten to buy anything to bring to the Rocket Society Harvest Festival. Then I remembered some ham sandwiches Mother had packed for me on Moving Day and which I had forgotten. I dug them out from behind the coa l scuttle, still in their original newspaper...To maintain the lawful standards of hygiene I brushed the coal dust off the wrapping before I took them.
During the day I had looked over a few of Ego's books so that perhaps I shouldn't seem too crassly ignorant at the meeting. I gathered that the Moon revolved around the earth, hence Old Moore's Almanac, and that twenty-inch telescope meant the diameter of it, and not its length, as I'd always imagined. There was one book in particular which was a mine of such information and impressively entitled "The Nebular Hypothesis."
Thus primed, I arrived at the Robinson's house. Mrs. Robinson welcomed us at the door. Her St. Bernard also welcomed us, particularly me, and saved me a trip to the bathroom by washing my face with an enormous wet tongue.
"He likes you," said Mrs. Robinson.
"That's nice," I said, with two eyefuls of tongue.
"Oh, no, your face is still there," said Ego.
We went in, and handed over the cakes, rolls and sandwiches. There was company already in the sitting room. Besides the host, Mr. Robinson, a thick-set fellow with determined features, who was the Secretary and had to be determined because these meetin gs were liable to get out of hand, there were Mr. Williams and Mr. Arnold.
Mr. Williams had painted a picture of the Earth as it should look from space. He stood holding it up at one end of the room while Mr. Robinson peered at it through a small telescope.
"You should have a look at this," said Mr. Robinson to me. "The telescope is slightly out of focus, so that you get a sort of hazy effect, just as the Earth would look from a rocket ship three days out."
"Thank you," I said, as he gave me the telescope. "Nice instrument this."
"You are interested in telescopes!"
"Oh, yes," I said, and embroidered further to cover a certain nervousness. "I've a friend who has a 20 inch telescope."
"Reflector or Refractor!"
"Methodist," I said. "Oh you mean the telescope! No, it's neither-it's one he made himself."
He exchanged a puzzled frown with Mr. Williams.
The last strand of my nerve snapped, and I took refuge in peeping through the telescope. At first I had difficulty in seeing anything at all. And then all of a sudden it came right, and I saw a lovely, pale pastel-shaded globe, somewhat blurred and ind efinite, but in its way thrilling if you allowed yourself to imagine that you were in a rocketship thousands of miles out in space, travelling Moonwards and looking back through a porthole at the "mother planet."
"It's fine," I said, enthusiastically. Then I thought perhaps I had better temper my enthusiasm with just a wee bit of criticism to show that if I were no expert on telescopes, at least I knew something about astronomical paintings...So I add ed, 'But I think there is just a bit too much red in the centre."
Then I removed my eye from the eyepiece and found I had trained the telescope full on the round face of Mr. Arnold who was standing there, looking thoughtful after a visit to the cocktail cabinet in the corner. My remark seemed to change his line of th ought, and he stared at me without benefit of telescope
I crept away into a corner-the corner where the cocktail cabinet was. I had two double whiskies before I dared look anyone in the face again. The St. Bernard sought me out and, seeing with canine intuition that I was unhappy, lick my face again consoli ngly. He'd got down to the sixth skin layer when I burst free.
More technical members now came pouring in. I kept out of their way, trying to look as if I were the man who'd come about the gasmeter and had nothing to do with any rocket society.
Things really began to get going when the Technical Director arrived. He had quick, lively eyes, and talked as much with his hands as with his tongue, and he was no mute.
As I mentioned, the Society had designed their own rocketship to go to the Moon. Most of it was still on paper because the thing itself would cost a million or two. They thought it was only a question of time before a billionaire came rushing forward b egging to back their venture with hard cash-for what billionaire could resist such a chance to buy everlasting fame? Meanwhile, while they were waiting for the first billionaire to rush, they were amusing themselves by making some of the smaller and cheap er navigational instruments.
The Director had just finished constructing the altimeter. He explained how he'd done it. This was quite a performance, needing both hands and plenty of room. He had his own system of semaphore in shorthand. A swift circular sweep in the air meant 'a w heel'. A sort of corkscrew wiggle (borrowed, I suspected, from the Hawaiian Love Dance) meant 'A spiral spring.' A Roman salute meant 'about so high.' Once he tried to describe a camshaft and a crankshaft simultaneously, and drew music from the air. 'A lo ng lever' carried a vase of chrysanthemums off the mantel-shelf. For the benefit of the short-sighted he also ran a machinegun vocal commentary. He was somewhat handicapped in clarity, though not in speed, by a heavy cold. ("...two spriggs attadged t o thad chaid...")
Apparently the Director's altimeter wouldn't behave itself. The thing had a big dial, on which a pointer moved to indicate the exact height to which the contraption had been raised above ground level. But every time he lifted the thing up, the pointer whizzed back past zero and pretended that the altimeter was decently buried six feet in the earth.
"H'm...that could prove very embarrassing at a public demonstration," commented Mr. Robinson.
"We could always tell them that it proves space is curved," rapped out Ego smartly, and there were murmurs of approval.
Everybody now began to discuss this subversive behaviour of the altimeter and in the Rocket Society tradition no one kept to the subject. First someone suggested substituting an eggtimer for the spaceship altimeter, on the grounds that it worked on the same principle. From eggtimers, the talk slid away to ecology, the rising birthrate, tomato growing, and Haley's comet. Here someone carried it over to the Great Nebula in Andromeda and I recalled a certain book title and seized this chance to mention to my neighbour: "I have always thought the Nebular Hypothesis purely hypothetical."
"Some do, some don't." he answered gravely.
The Director and Mr. Robinson now started an argument, across the room, on such a highly technical plane that I just sat between them agape while the stream of polysyllabic words passed over my head like a beautiful rainbow. Ego kept making bright inte rjections, which may or may not have been to the point, but which at any rate showed us that he understood what was going on. Which was all that Ego wanted to show us anyway. It ended with the Director promising to consult the National Physical Laboratory on this point. (I missed the point, and as far as I'm concerned it's still missing.)
The company was analyzing methods of running a bagwash when the determined Mr. Robinson dragged the focus of attention round grimly to the next item on the agenda. It was another navigating instrument, called a "Coelostat." It's use still per sistently defies my understanding, but for the curious I got Ego to write down in his own words his explanation of the thing, with no comment from me save that it's obviously all done by mirrors.
"The BRS rocketship is designed to revolve around its own longitudinal axis when in flight (a) to maintain stability during its initial flight through the atmosphere, in the manner of an artillery shell, and (b), to provide the crew wi th artificial gravity by pressing them, through centrifugal force, against the walls of the ship. Hence, the Navigator will find it difficult to take bearings since the visible heavens will appear to be revolving. The Coelostat is designed to counteract t his and contains mirrors revolving in a contra direction to the rotation of the ship, so that the Navigator looking through it sees the heavens apparently stationary and is thus enabled to fasten upon fixed stars for bearings. I, personally, think that I. .."
(Irrelevant matter follows this.)
Even some members of the Technical Committee were a little confused over the optical principle of the thing, so the Director undertook to dispel their confusion by giving object lessons.
"I'll make a cardboard model of the Coelostat, from which the principle can be clearly seen."
He stood there and we looked at him expectantly.
"Er-has anyone got any cardboard?" he said.
Mr. Arnold fumbled in his pocket, produced a piece of bent cardboard, and handed it over silently.
"Good," said the Director, and stood there absently fiddling with the piece of card. Everyone waited
"Um-has anyone got any scissors?"
Mr. Arnold, without a word, produced a pair of folding nail-scissors.
"Thank you. Now we're getting somewhere."
The Director stood there, with the cardboard in one hand and the scissors in the other, looking as though he had either too many things or not enough.
The tension grew.
"I wonder-ha-if anyone's got a needle?"
The amazing Mr. Arnold rose to the occasion again. It seemed no emergency could find him at a loss.
"Fine, fine-ouch!" said the Director, taking the needle by the wrong end.
He sucked his thumb for quite a while.
Presently he said, "All we want now is a mirror."
Everyone has become tired of looking expectantly at the Director. The miracles, it seemed, were not coming from him but from Mr. Arnold. But he blushed, shook his head, and giggled feebly.
"Will this one do?" asked Mrs. Robinson, passing over her powder compact.
The Director thought it would. Now he began cutting the cardboard into strips.
"From these I shall form a model framework of the Coelostat," he announced. "You will see that it is quite simple and straightforward."
He borrowed a pen and labelled the strips "Front" and "Back." He picked up the powder compact and brushed half-heartedly at the powder which had streamed down the front of his suit. Then he became persuaded that he should have start ed with the needle and built the framework around it. He looked for the needle. He had lost the needle. We were all conscripted for the search and soon the room looked as if it had been the scene of a stand-up fight between two poltergeists. The needle wa s never located, but if I remember rightly somebody found a haystack. (The St. Bernard was blamed for this.)
The Director returned to his cardboard strips. He counted them rapidly. Then once more, slowly.
"I've got one 'Back' too many, and not enough 'Fronts'" he said. "Has anyone got a pen?"
"What happened to the one I lent you?" somebody asked complainingly.
The Director stated that he hadn't borrowed the pen, that he remembered giving it back, and that it wasn't a very good pen anyway, and then discovered it behind his ear.
He used it to amend the strips. He counted them, again. Then he accused the company of interfering: he now had all 'Fronts' and no 'Backs'. Someone suggested that he build the thing that way, and they'd all just look at the front and try to imagine it had a back.
But the Director petulantly threw the strips away, and said he wasn't going to play if they made fun of him. Everyone except myself then protested their undying loyalty, admiration, support, eagerness to learn, and willingness to co-operate.
"Very well," said the Director, relenting a little. I'll use all of you for the framework. What I mean is, if we can get hold of enough mirrors, you can hold them up at the proper angles, representing the framework of the Coelostat.&q uot;
The hunt for mirrors began. The house was combed from attic to cellar. I produced my steel pocket mirror, Mr. Robinson his shaving mirror, and Ego his portable triptych mirror, with which from time to time he was wont to sit and admire his profile. Peo ple kept wandering in with wall mirrors and hand mirrors and great slabs of mirror lifted from dressing tables. One enthusiast staggered in with the door of a wardrobe with the broken hinges dangling.
By now the room was flashing and scintillating. It looked like the finale of a pantomime. Finally, the flashing subsided, became a steady glitter. All movement was stilled. The house had been sucked dry.
The Director surveyed the huge spreading pile.
"Where's the powder compact?" he asked suddenly. It wasn't viable. It had been walled in by its multitudinous greater relatives. The Director smote his head. We rushed to point out other little mirrors that could be used as a substitute.
"No, none of them is the right size," he said, with a wailing note. "I must have the compact."
"Very well," said Mr. Robinson. "I know this territory better than most. I'll go in and get it."
We cheered, gave him sandwiches for rations, and watched him disappear into the interior. He was not actually seen again for some time, though occasionally we were vouchsafed reflections, usually of his rear view, as he crawled about in the mirror maze . At first there were intermittent clinkings, and as long as we could hear him thus we felt that all was well with him.
But then there came a long period of silence, and we began to feel uneasy. We voiced our uneasiness and then just as Ego was taking down the names of volunteers for a search party Mr. Arnold said "Look!" and pointed. From the north-eastern ar ea of the maze, we saw thin curls of tobacco smoke rising. Life still existed in the catacombs!
Soon Mr. Robinson emerged, clutching his pipe and the powder compact.
Ego said, with a little catch in his voice. "So long as we have members as dauntless as this, there is no fear that we shall fail to reach the Moon."
Even I was moved.
The Director took the powder compact, and placed it carefully on the top of the grand piano. This, he explained, was to represent the 'viewing Mirror' of the Coelostat.
He directed us each to pick up a mirror and hold it above his head. Then he placed us in various postures, adjusting the angles of our mirrors. The idea was to get a line of reflection passing from mirror to mirror through all the angles, just as it di d in the Coelostat. To show us how it did, he attempted to trace the line with a pencil, passing it slowly through the air from mirror to mirror. He kept losing track of the line, and once, in a flurried effort to regain it, found himself rapidly going ro und in circles. He had difficulty in getting out of the whirlpool. Afterwards, he was dizzy and lurched about, and went right off the line again, nearly jabbing Mr. Williams' eye out with the pencil.
He rested, and then persistently went through it again, this time without being derailed. He ended up by pointing with his pencil out of the doorway.
This bewildered him. He should have ended up in the coal scuttle, he said.
He looked around at us as we posed. Ego was contorted like the Discobolus. I felt sure that he had the wrong knee bent and was throwing us all out of focus. But it was me that the Director frowned on. He shook his head, said "Tut-tut!" and tw isted my mirror to an excruciating angle, to hold which my biceps needed to be on the undersides of my arms. It was a heavy section of dressing-table mirror and it had already begun to make my arms ache. Now my back and legs ached too, and my arms felt li ke twisted elastic.
"There!" he said. "That's better. That was where we were wrong." He addressed the company at large. "Now when I look in the viewing mirror I should see the coal scuttle, passed through all your mirrors."
He went to the piano, bent and peered carefully into the compact mirror. He complained that he could see nothing but the ceiling. He twisted the compact around and still saw the ceiling. He lowered himself practically on to an eye level with the piano- top, squinted into the compact from that angle, and saw-the ceiling.
The roomful of living statuary began to lose some of its artistry and cohesion. Fatigue was overtaking it. It showed itself first in a little trembling here, a little swaying there. Then, definitely, wobble set in.
Some held grimly on. Others sank, more or less gracefully, to the floor. But two or three of them just went out like candles, thudded to the carpet, and lay twitching amid the splinters of their mirrors.
I could feel myself going...going...
But the Director saved me by giving in first.
"Confound it, I can't do a thing until somebody takes away the ceiling!" he yelped, and flung away from the piano, and was inconsolable
Mrs. Robinson came across the battlefield like Florence Nightingale with a tray of tea and sandwiches, and the fallen began to sit up and take nourishment, although still somewhat white and shaking. They apologised to the Director, and said that despit e their being broken reeds they had, even in the act of collapse, glimpsed the beautiful principle of Coelostat, and they were grateful to him for this revelation.
Presently he thawed out and forgave them, but he kept explaining to Mrs Robinson over and over again: "I couldn't see anything but the ceiling."
"Yes, of course." she soothed, giving him another fish paste sandwich. "Lots of people have told us we have too much ceiling. I've been trying to get my husband to do something about it."
I took a large bite at my own sandwich, and realized too late I'd been hoisted with my own petard. Mother's ham had come back to her loving son, even though the weather had been against it.
I can't imagine how the layer of coal dust had got into it, but I was glad it was there: it acted as a sort of buffer and probably saved me from skinning the roof of my mouth. Even so, I was beyond speech for some time. Not that it mattered: the conver sation was not flagging. It touched upon the species of bed-bugs, the symptoms of rabies, the formula for ice-pudding, the air speed of flying-fish, and skated round life in Tibetan monasteries. It sped off in the direction of Van Gogh, by way of Mr. Will iams; St. Bernards, by way of Mrs. Robinson; and Ego, by way of Ego.
My power of speech returned but not the power to use it. For one thing, the flow was unbroken and I couldn't get in. For another, I didn't seem to have anything to get in with. Nobody even mentioned science, and I was left with my poor little string of facts dangling uselessly.
"Surely," I told myself, "at the rate they are going they must sooner or later, get round to the Nebular Hypothesis-or else there's nothing in the Laws of Chance."
I perceived I'd been studying the wrong sources of information. I should have concentrated on the fillers in the popular weeklies: "It is not generally known that all winkles are ambidextrous." That sort of thing.
After settling the question of herring pickling for this generation, the meeting broke up in the usual way (ie, in disorder) and we two drifted off in the general direction of London.
As we walked along Watford High Street, I tried Ego-for want of a better audience.
I said, with careful casualness: "Regarding the well known Nebular Hy-"
"The higher the fewer," he said abruptly, and sent me on ahead to see if a train was coming.
Data entry and page scans provided by Judy Bemis
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