Friday, 18 December 2009

THE DA VINCI MACHINE - a short story by GC

I had cleared the garden shed of its obvious junk; warped doors, broken furniture, an ancient refrigerator, and a particularly nasty gas stove.
A bonfire and several trips to the local recycling centre kept me occupied over the weekend. The physical exertion helped numb the pain of Suzy leaving me.
That summer Sunday evening I’d had enough in all sorts of ways. I was just about to call it a night when I found a canvas curtain covering the far wall at the back of the now otherwise empty shed. It was hanging as though to conceal what disappointingly proved to be a stack of timber.

The couple of dozen planks had holes drilled in a variety of numbers and sizes. If I hadn’t been so tired I might have thrown the wood, which was painted in a black gloss, on the bonfire there and then.
A large black and padlocked chest, upended, was almost invisible in a dark corner. It offered hope of the diversion I so badly needed. I dragged it out of the shed, across the grass, and in to the light from the kitchen window.
The lock was easily hammered free. The cause of the chest’s weight was quickly apparent. There were long lengths of chain of three separate thicknesses wrapped in sacking and tied with rope. There were pulleys, cogs, wheels, weights, and springs. Each carefully rolled up in well-oiled rags that might once have been flannel sheets. There was an ancient carrier bag filled with half-used candles and five mirrors - the biggest the size of a pillow and the smallest could have fitted in a top pocket.
With increasing bewilderment and thoughts of Suzy temporarily forgotten I found an antique bellows – the sort that lies next to fire irons in Christmas card fireplaces. The pointed bit was missing.
Strangest of all was a print of the Mona Lisa (full-size, I’d seen the real thing on a school trip to Paris) mounted on hardboard with a Perspex cover.
Finally at the bottom of the chest were a house brick and a large ladies handbag. Inside the bag was a wad of newspaper cuttings and a manila envelope that contained more of the same.
I should say that every few hours from the moment Suzy drove off on the Saturday evening and all through Sunday I had been ringing her sister Michelle in Nottingham where it was a pretty safe bet she had gone. This was her third big walking out drama in as many years. Michelle refused to admit that Suzy was there and eventually stopped taking my calls.
It was my cue to drive from London to beg her to come back. But this time I stayed put fully realising I was setting the seal on my marriage. Blistering rows or moody silences, I couldn’t take any more.
It was close to midnight and although physically exhausted I knew there was no point in trying to sleep. So more as a distraction than anything else I spread the loose cuttings across the kitchen table something Suzy would never have stood for.
I began with a bunch of pages torn and taped back together from Sunday newspaper colour supplements. The pages dated from 1965.
The earliest article ran across five heavily illustrated pages. It was headlined ‘Leonardo’s Helicopter’. On the first was an artist’s impression of what might pass for a primitive machine designed for flight was it not for the rudimentary rotor blades. Fixed to a pole attached to the seat, they were much too small compared to today’s real thing and the effect most resembled a small palm tree.
Pages four and five carried Leonardo’s own drawings for the machine. For no reason the author of the feature could fathom, they had been recently found in a sheaf of sketches drawn by da Vinci in preparation for the painting of the Mona Lisa.
For all the palm tree-like rotor blades, it didn’t seem far-fetched given Leonardo’s genius to call the sketches a helicopter blueprint. All this was news to me. I recognised the distinctive shape of a bellows in Leonardo’s designs. Could the contents of the chest really have something to do with the 500-year-old plans?
Back in 1965 an American billionaire offered a $1 million to the first inventor who could build and fly Leonardo’s machine. The pilot had to travel a figure-of-eight course over a distance greater than a mile at its length and breadth. The helicopter had to complete its flight within 30 minutes never once touching the ground.
There were cuttings from the same magazine over the next few years - each shorter than the one before - describing failed attempts to win the prize.
There were articles from various newspapers which were undated but seemed to have been written later. They told the same story of failed attempts around the world to construct the helicopter.
At this point a wave of misery and despair swept over me. My life was as useless and pedestrian as Leonardo’s machine. Suzy was right; I was a boring, underachieving dreamer.
I left the cuttings where they were and went to bed; but I couldn’t sleep. I knew my marriage was over but one part of my brain kept insisting that if I could find the point were things went wrong I might still be able to make it right.
We met at the bank. Eugene Howland, foreign exchange, and Suzy Remington, private customer services. At lunch, evenings, and eventually bedtime we plotted our escape.
I once overheard myself described as a “long tall geek”, while Suzy was a head-turner whatever the current colour of her hair. She wanted to travel and I had a flair for foreign languages. But instead of the round-the-world trip that we saved for, we, no, I convinced her the cash should be used for a deposit on a house. To qualify for the bank’s preferential mortgage we had to marry. She never forgave for me for either decision.

I was woken by the noise of Suzy packing. It was 9am Monday morning. “I’ve come for my things – what’s the stuff on the kitchen table?”
Suzy was walking out on the bank as well as me. She said she was going to Majorca to work in a bar owned by the husband of a girl she knew.
“Don’t you think you’re a little old…” I started to say.
“I’m 28. 28. You’re 30 going on a hundred. I want some fun. Some life. What happened to all our plans to see the world?”
“I still want to travel but the house..”
“Fuck the house. I want a divorce.”
“Is there someone else?”
“I certainly hope so.”

I had been due to start a week’s holiday. I ‘d intended to sort out the shed and tidy up the garden in the time. At least I could stop worrying about preparing a nursery – always an empty gesture seeing that Suzy and my all-too-infrequent lovemaking had come to a total halt a long time before.
After a while wandering aimlessly around the silent house, I settled down to read the remaining newspaper cuttings in the envelope. You didn’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to see that two people probably had a hand in putting these articles together.
There were about 25 in all. One set comprised neatly trimmed cuttings that were dated and had the magazines’ name carefully printed in ballpoint wherever blank space would allow. The articles were mostly from scientific journals and a few by the science correspondents of broadsheet newspapers.
There was another smaller set which were crudely torn pages. Nothing was written on them. The tops of the sheets showed they were less ancient than the others that had been placed in to the envelope.
Over the afternoon I put together the story of Professor Arthur Hitchens.

By counting back from when his age was first quoted I figured that Hitchens had been born in 1920. There was nothing about his early years. The articles kicked off with one guaranteed to make me read the rest. In 1950 Hitchens with his wife Margaret were invited to spend six months with Albert Einstein in the US. Hitchens was described as the most promising nuclear physicist of his day.
He returned to Britain and a new professorship specially created for him. There was a set of scientific articles by and about him plus published exchanges of letters – all in the most impenetrable language possible about quantum physics and relativity.
Some others made more sense to me. There was a cutting from The Listener in 1960, which was an edited transcript of a radio broadcast he had given. In it Hitchens argued that time travel was not impossible – at least as a theory. “We are anchored in the 20th century by our lack of knowledge but not necessarily for all time,” he had concluded.
An interview with Hitchens asked whether he was passed over for a Noble Prize because of this quirky interest. “If I ever get to travel back in time I wouldn’t change anything,” he had replied. There was very little about the man himself. He prized his privacy but there were glimpses of a good-humoured boffin.
The second pile, ragged-edged, had no immediately discernible order. Pages torn from the New Scientist and the Daily Mirror chartered Hitchens’decline. As the years progressed articles about the man – and sometimes by him – moved from specialist journals to the ‘posh’ newspapers, to finally the tabloids.
From around 1970 onwards Hitchens had become increasingly obsessed with the prospect of time travel. At the beginning of the period there were serious assessments of his campaign to win funds for his experiments.
The last article, however, in the Daily Mirror was headlined ‘Mad Prof has time on his hands.’ It carried a fuzzy picture of an elderly man in a dressing gown picking up a bottle of milk from the doorstep of what was unmistakably my front door.
It was the first I knew about a distinguished previous occupant of the modest house where I now lived alone. I read on with increased interest, my domestic upheaval diminishing in its ability to pain.
Laughed out of the academic world and now a widower of many years, Hitchens was a recluse. The Mirror story had been prompted by complaints to the police from neighbours about noises and flashing lights at night from Hitchens’ garden shed.
I don’t know where ideas come from but I certainly know when they arrive. I was stacking the newspaper cuttings back together when it struck, yes, like a bolt of lightning. I didn’t know why I hadn’t seen it immediately. Hitchens could build Leonardo’s design in his garden shed because it wasn’t a helicopter but a time machine.
It sounds mad that I should believe anything as earth-shattering could be put together with just a bunch of chains, mirrors, and a broken bellows. But then I was more than a little crazy. Suzy’s desertion had set my whole world on its head. It wasn’t safe to think rationally.
I needed to prove her wrong. My life wasn’t a fat zero. I could be fearless, a great adventurer. I would be famous. See the world? I would travel through time.
So I went out and bought some cable so I could power a light in the shed from the house. I also bought enough food to last me a couple of months. I wasn’t going to stop working until I had built da Vinci’s time machine.

I had an early success. There was a small selection of timber, which was easily assembled – without need for nails or glue – to create the seat that was the feature at the centre of Leonardo’s plan. At least now I knew the junk and the plans were related.
That was Tuesday. By Thursday I was beaten. I had laboured around the clock trying to copy the wooden frame in which the seat was somehow suspended. There was no combination of wood and chains that came anywhere near looking like the illustrations in the magazine.
I had hardly slept, washed, or eaten. After what must have been more than 20 attempts I still wasn’t close. There was nothing like the palm tree-rotor blades that I supposed must power the machine.
Days passed. Only someone driven mad by disappointment with his life would have continued as long as I did.
I t got to the point one night I was so tired I sank to the shed’s floor and dozed on sacking until morning. I was woken by the sound of birdsong. Not a chorus but a pretty effective trio.
I listened long enough for a ray of early sun to squeeze through the top of the door. Lying there on my back I had never realised that the roof of the shed had 50 or so hooks of various sizes screwed in to the wood.
I knew there were hooks but I assumed they had been fixed randomly to hang garden tools from. Far from it; now I could see the hooks formed the shape of what could be best described as a large pentangle covering most of the shed ceiling.
The time lord lost all track of time. I doubt that unless I’d been a fan of giant jigsaw puzzles as well as diy – both hobbies Suzy took her time deciding she despised - I could have got as far as I did.
I realised that the various thicknesses of the chains were related to the different sizes of the holes in the planks and the hooks in the roof. By trial and error with snail-like slowness I began to see how the chains could be fed through the wood and attached to the hooks to make the frame for a very wobbly tee-pee. I hung the seat from the centre of the tent.
It was a tense moment sitting in the chair for the first time. There was still a lot of stuff in the chest, which I hadn’t found any use for. I worried the whole thing would come crushing down on me.
The frame creaked and groaned and swayed but held my weight. I leant back and was nearly somersaulted out of the seat but I found by jerking forward it righted itself. I realised that any position I willed my body to take, the seat could accommodate. I slept in the chair until dawn broke.
Some time in the middle of all this, I received a visit from a nervous young man in the human resources department at the bank’s head office. I wasn’t so deranged that I hadn’t noticed I’d continued to be paid although I hadn’t gone back to work after the end of my holiday.
Taking one look at my now unkempt hair, straggly beard, and stained working clothes, he had no trouble diagnosing a nervous breakdown and suggested medical help. It turned out that Suzy had in fact gone off to Spain with Andy Brown, the manager of our branch. He had walked out on his wife and a couple of children.
I now see it was to avoid bad publicity that the bank told me to take as long as I liked to get over the shock of Suzy skipping town. I hold her no ill will. Without her I would never have had the determination and chance to complete the machine.

Spending so much time in the shed puzzling out how Hitchens had built the thing began to give me insights in to how he thought. The pace of construction began to quicken. I spotted, for example, candle grease stains at about 30 points on the planks. Without knowing why I positioned the candles there.
I knew I would have to find a use for every item that remained in the chest if I was to stand a chance of making the time machine work.
I found the spot on the wall of the shed on which to hang the print of the Mona Lisa. I fathomed where to fix the series of mirrors so that in whatever position of the wooden cave, the woman was reflected and re-reflected mirror-to-mirror right down to the smallest one that hung above the seat.
I had to believe Hitchens had been able to go back in time to meet her to sustain me as I found how the weights and pulleys fed on themselves. The cuttings had said he was a widower – perhaps loneliness had driven him.
Finally only the broken bellows and the brick were left. The two ends of the sequence of chains met the frame fixed to the back of the chair. I cried when the bellows slotted into the frame completing the puzzle.
I set the machine in motion by pulling on the chains but it was clear that it couldn’t function properly without the weight of a body, my body, in the chair. But I had been able to get it running long enough to see the curious effect the weights and springs had on the bellows. The movement of the frame seemed to draw air in rather than blow it out.
I set the brick in the main pulley for no other reason than there marks on the metal that could have been made by a brick – and it seemed to fit.
I had worked so hard for this moment I was drained of emotion. There was neither fear nor any great excitement as I waited for nightfall. I had in mind the complaints of Hitchens neighbours all those years ago. I wanted the shed as dark as possible to get the greatest illumination from the candles.
When it was time I lit them and switched off the electric light. In that instance the walls of the shed disappeared and it was as though I had been projected in to the depths of the universe.
I climbed in to the chair and lowered the smallest mirror down to the level of my eyes so that I was face to face with the final reflection of the Mona Lisa. The flickering candlelight gave her features a reality I hadn’t appreciated before.
The machine refused to start. I was suspended in space and once again my thoughts flew to the absence of the palm tree rotor blades that had seemed central to Leonardo’s design.
In desperation I began to swing my weight to and fro in the chair. I over did one swing and to steady myself I dropped my hands and accidently grabbed the frame that held the bellows beneath the seat.
Such was the sensitivity of the springs that once touched the frame made a gentle arc passing over the back of my head and the bellows came to rest on my knees.
At that moment there was the single sound of one weight clicking against another; followed by silence; a sequence repeated several times before the whole machine began to sway.
Cogs, pulleys, chains began to shift the position of the timber so that one moment I could see the shed’s ceiling and the next it was as though I was in a nest among tall trees before being plunged to the forest floor.
There was no pattern to the rhythm of the movement – neither in the speed or the sounds of the machine.
It would stop, start, quicken, slow while all the time the chair had a separate life. But I felt no danger I might fall. I was safe in the womb and my mother was dancing.
Suddenly the bellows, which I now held clasped across my chest, began to, so it seemed, breath.
It was making little sucking noises. I put my lips to the end of the bellows and it gave me little kisses more tenderly than any I ever remembered. It would stop and then kiss more deeply.
My lips encircled the nozzle and the kisses were no longer dry and chaste but wet and lustful sucking on my tongue. I kissed back with all the passion that had been stored up in my unhappy life. And then the kissing stopped as though my lover and I were pausing for breath.
It was only then that I looked up in the mirror now just inches from my eyes. the Mona Lisa was smiling broadly, on the point of laughing. The movement of the machine and the flickering of the candles worked on the reflection of the woman to bring her to life.
As I looked deep into her face, the bellows started with their baby kisses again. I sucked eagerly on the nozzle. There was everything you ever needed to know about men and women in the gentle shake of her head.
Men are so stupid she seemed to say ruled by the urges of their bodies. So blind they cannot see their place is to serve. Women are elemental.
There wasn’t time for deeper thought. So amused by the sight of my mouth around the bellows, the Mona Lisa started to laugh.
Deep, hearty laughter that knew no caution shook her body. I wanted to laugh too. I was filled with joy, happiness of the senses, of being alive at that moment and no other. Then at once I plunged in to sadness and despair that the grave is our only destination. And ecstasy again that death must wait.
The kisses grew more urgent. If only I could have stretched across the centuries and held her face to mine and felt those arms around me. My whole being was filled with such an outpouring of love that I wanted to explode.
There could be no other response. I fished in my fly and stuck my eager penis in the mouth of the bellows. At that instant the seal was completed, the machine shuddered or perhaps it was me.
The machine seemed to behave differently change gear welcoming me to a new, more intense cycle of happiness. It was as though it could see inside my head and anticipate my desires.
I was transported to all corners of the thing in such a way it seemed I was moving through infinite space. One moment the lady was laughing, the next the star-candles faded to the deep velvet of the universe.
Yes, the pleasure was focused on my loins but in such a way that the thrusts, now small, now deep, now none at all where made by my whole body, every fibre of my senses.
As I ejaculated the final secret was revealed to me. The palm tree wasn’t the motive force of a helicopter. It was Leonardo’s representation of the climax for which his machine had been created.
I can only marvel at his genius and Hitchens’ brilliance in recognising its true nature and rebuilding it. If only I had their strength of character to have prevented the machine becoming my master, my mistress.

I flew again the next night and the night after; then twice the next day. I am up to four now. I want more.
I have come to curse the brick. It is the brake, the anchor that stops the machine. When it reaches the central pulley, the main chains slacken and the machine gently comes to a halt.
If I was a poet I might be able to describe better the need to go further. But even if I had the words I don’t have the time.
Night is approaching and I have spent longer than I intended trying to explain to you who must have found this – and I suppose me.
Just the thought of the pleasure that waits makes me tremble as I write these last few lines.
I have to know what is beyond. I have to know whether it is an infinity of pleasure or pain.

It is night now and the candles must be lit.
If you find these notes under this brick do not think badly of me.


  1. Beautiful. I loved this story.

  2. Thanks, I hope you enjoy my other short stories. GC


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