Odd John: A Story Between Jest and Earnest, by Olaf Stapledon

Chapter 6

Many Inventions

ALTHOUGH I did not at the time know that John was responsible for the murder, I noticed that a change came over him. He became less communicative, in a way more aloof from his friends, both juvenile and adult, and at the same time more considerate and even gentle. I say “in a way” more aloof, because, though less ready to talk about himself, and more prone to solitariness, he had also his sociable times. He could indeed be a most sympathetic companion, the sort in whom one was tempted to confide all manner of secret hopes and fears that were scarcely admitted by oneself. One day, for instance, I found myself discovering, under the influence of John’s presence and my own effort to explain myself, that I had already become very strongly attracted to a certain Pax-like young woman, and further that I had been kept from recognizing this feeling through an obscure sense of loyalty to John. The discovery of the strength of my feeling for John was more of a shock than the discovery of my feeling for the girl. I knew that I was deeply interested in John, but till that day I had no idea how subtle and far-reaching were the tentacles with which the strange child had penetrated me.

My reaction was a violent and rather panicky rebellion. I flaunted before John the new-found normal sexual attraction which he himself had pointed out to me, and I ridiculed the notion that I was psychologically his captive. He replied, “Well, be careful. Don’t spoil your life for me.” It was strange to be talking like this to a child of less than ten years old. It was distressing to feel that he knew more about me than I knew about myself. For in spite of my denial, I knew that he was right.

Looking back, I recognize that John’s interest in my case was partly due to curiosity about a relationship which he himself could not yet experience, partly to straightforward affection for a well-known companion, partly to the need to understand as fully as possible one whom he intended to use for his own ends. For it is clear that he did intend to use me, that he did not for a moment intend me to free myself. He wanted my affair with the Pax-like girl to go forward and complete itself not only because, as my friend, he espoused my need, but also because, if I were to give it up for his sake, I should become a vindictive rather than a willing slave. He preferred, I imagine, to be served by a free and roving hound rather than by a chained and hungry wolf.

His feeling for individuals of the species which, as a species, he heartily despised, was a strange blend of contempt and respect, detachment and affection. He despised us for our stupidity and fecklessness; he respected us for our occasional efforts to surmount our natural disabilities. Though he used us for his own ends with calm aloofness, he could also, when fate or our own folly brought us into trouble, serve us with surprising humility and devotion.

His growing capacity for personal relationships with members of the inferior species was shown most quaintly in his extraordinary friendship with a little girl of six. Judy’s home was close to John’s, and she had come to regard John as her private property. He played uproarious games with her, helped her to climb trees, and taught her to swim and roller-skate. He told her wildly imaginative stories. He patiently explained to her the sorry jokes of Comic Cuts. He drew pictures of battle and murder, shipwreck and volcanic eruption for Judy’s sole delight. He mended her toys. He chaffed her for her stupidity or praised her for her intelligence as occasion demanded. If any one was less than kind to her, John rushed to her defence. In all communal games it was taken for granted that John and Judy must be on the same side. In return for this devotion she mauled him, laughed at him, scolded him, called him “stoopid Don,” showed no respect at all for his marvellous powers, and presented him with all the most cherished results of her enterprise in the “hand-work” class at school.

I once challenged John, “Why are you so fond of Judy?” He answered promptly, imitating her unusually backward baby speech, “Doody made for be’n’ fon’ of. Can’t not be fon’ of Doody.” Then after a pause he said, “I’m fond of Judy as I’m fond of sea-birds. She does only simple things, but she does them all with style. She be’s Judy as thoroughly and perfectly as a gannet be’s a gannet. If she could grow up to do the grown-up things as well as she does the baby things, she’d be glorious. But she won’t. When it comes to doing the more difficult things, I suppose she’ll mess up her style like — like the rest of you. It’s a pity. But meanwhile she’s — Judy.”

“What about yourself?” I said. “Do you expect to grow up without losing your style?”

“I’ve not found my style yet,” he answered. “I’m groping. I’ve messed things pretty badly already. But when I do find it — well, we shall see. Of course,” he added surprisingly, “God may find grown-ups as delightful to watch as I find Judy; because, I suppose, he doesn’t want them to have a finer style than they actually have. Sometimes I can feel that way about them myself. I can feel their bad style is part of what they are, and strangely fascinating to watch. But I have an idea God expects something different from me. Or, leaving out the God myth, I expect something different from me.”

A few weeks after the murder, John developed a surprising interest in a very homely sphere, namely the management of a house. He would spend an hour at a time in following Martha the maid about the house on her morning’s work, or in watching the culinary operations. For her entertainment he kept up a stream of small talk compounded of scandal, broad humour, and chaff about her “gentlemen friends.” The same minute observation, but a very different kind of talk was devoted to Pax when she was in the pantry or the larder, or when she was “tidying” a room or mending clothes. Sometimes he would break off his tittle-tattle to say, “Why not do it this way?” Martha’s response to such suggestions varied from haughty contempt to grudging acceptance, according to her mood. Pax invariably gave serious attention to the new idea, though sometimes she would begin by protesting, “But my way works well enough; why bother?” In the end, however, she nearly always adopted John’s improvement, with an odd little smile which might equally well have meant maternal pride or indulgence.

Little by little John introduced a number of small labour-saving devices into the house, shifting a hook or a shelf to suit the natural reach of the adult arm, altering the balance of the coal-scuttle, reorganizing the larder and the bathroom. He tried to introduce his methods into the surgery, suggesting new ways of cleaning test-tubes, sterilizing instruments and storing drugs; but after a few attempts he gave up this line of activity, since, as he put it, “Doc likes to muddle along in his own way.”

After two or three weeks John’s interest in household economy seemed to fade, save for occasional revivals in relation to some particular problem. He now spent most of his time away from home, ostensibly reading on the shore. But as the autumn advanced, and we began to inquire how he managed to keep himself warm, he apparently developed a passion for long walks by himself. He also spent much time in excursions into the neighbouring city. “I’m going to town for the day to see some fellows I’m interested in,” he would tell us; and in the evening he would return tired and absorbed.

It was toward the end of the winter that John, now about ten and a half, took me into his confidence with regard to the amazing commercial operations which had been occupying him during the previous six months. One filthy Sunday morning, when the windows were plastered with sleet, he suggested a walk. I indignantly refused. “Come on,” he insisted. “It’s going to be amusing for you. I want to show you my workshop.” He slowly winked first one huge eye and then the other.

By the time we had reached the shore my inadequate mackintosh was letting water through on my shoulders, and I was cursing John, and myself too. We tramped along the soaked sands till we reached a spot where the steep clay cliffs gave place to a slope, scarcely less steep, but covered with thorn bushes. John went down on his knees and led the way, crawling on all-fours up a track between the bushes. I was expected to follow. I found it almost impossible to force my larger bulk where John had passed with ease. When I had gone a few yards I was jammed, thorns impaling me on every side. Laughing at my predicament and my curses, John turned and cut me adrift with his knife, the same, doubtless, as had killed the constable. After another ten yards the track brought us into a small clearing on the steep slope. Standing erect at last, I grumbled, “Is this what you call your workshop?” John laughed, and said, “Lift that.” He was pointing to a rusty sheet of corrugated iron, which lay derelict on the hillside. One end of it was buried under a mass of rubbish. The exposed part was about three feet square. I tugged its free end up a couple of inches, cut my fingers on the rusty jagged edge, and let go with a curse. “Can’t be bothered,” I said. “Do your own dirty work, if you can.”

“Of course you can’t be bothered,” he replied, “nor would anyone else who found it.” He then worked his hand under the free corners of the sheet, and disentangled some rusty wire. The sheet was now easily lifted, and opened like a trap door in the hillside. It revealed a black hole between three big stones. John crawled inside, and bade me follow; but before I could wedge my way through he had to move one of the stones. I found myself in a low cave, illuminated by John’s flash-light. So this was the workshop! It had evidently been cut out of the clay slope and lined with cement. The ceiling was covered with rough planks, and shored up here and there with wooden posts.

John now lit an acetylene lamp, which was let into the outer wall. Shutting its glass face, he remarked, “Its air comes in by a pipe from outside, and its fumes go out by another. There’s an independent ventilation system for the room.” Pointing to a dozen round holes in the wall, “Drain-pipes,” he said. Such pipes were a common sight on the coast, for they were used for draining the fields; and the ever-crumbling cliff often exposed them.

For a few minutes I crouched in silence, surveying the little den. John watched me, with a grin of boyish satisfaction. There was a bench, a small lathe, a blow-lamp, and quantities of tools. On the back wall was a tier of shelves covered with a jumble of articles. John took one of these and handed it to me, saying, “This is one of my earlier gadgets, the world’s perfect wool-winder. No curates need henceforth apply. The Church’s undoing! Put the skein on those prongs, and an end of wool in that slot, then waggle the lever, so, and you get a ball of wool as sleek as the curate’s head. All made of aluminum sheeting, and a few aluminum knitting needles.”

“Damned ingenious,” I said, “but what good is it to you?”

“Why, you fool! I’m going to patent it and sell the patent.”

Producing a deep leather pouch, he said, “This is a detachable and untearable trouser-pocket for boys; and men, if they’ll have the sense to use it. The pocket itself clips on to this L-shaped strip, so; and all your trousers have strips like this, firmly sewn into the lining. You have one pair of pockets for all your trousers, so there’s no bother about emptying pockets when you change your clothes. And no more holes for Mummy to mend. And no more losing your treasures. Your pocket clips tight shut, so.”

Even my interest in John’s amazing enterprise (so childish and so brilliant, I told myself) could not prevent me from feeling wet and chilled. Taking off my dripping mackintosh, I said, “Don’t you get horribly cold working in this hole in the winter?”

“I heat the place with this,” he said, turning to a little oil-stove with a flue leading round the room and through the wall. He proceeded to light it, and put a kettle on the top, saying, “Let’s have some coffee.”

He then gave me a “gadget for sweeping out corners.” On the end of a long tubular handle was a brush like a big blunt cork-screw. This could be made to rotate by merely pressing it into the awkward corner. The rotatory motion was obtained by a device reminiscent of a “propelling” pencil, for the actual shaft of the brush was keyed into a spiral groove within the hollow handle.

“It’s possible the thing I’m on now will bring more money than any thing else, but it’s damned hard to make even an inch or two of it by hand.” The article which John now showed me was destined to become one of the most popular and serviceable of modern devices connected with clothing. Throughout Europe and America it has spawned its myriads of offspring. Nearly all the most ingenious and lucrative of John’s inventions have had such outstanding success that almost every reader must be familiar with every one of them. I could mention a score of them; but for private reasons, connected with John’s family, I must refrain from doing so. I will only say that, save for one universally adopted improvement in road-traffic appliances, he worked entirely in the field of household and personal labour-saving devices. The outstanding fact about John’s career as an inventor was his knack of producing not merely occasional successes but a steady flow of “best sellers.” Consequently to describe only a few minor achievements and interesting failures must give a very false impression of his genius. The reader must supplement this meagre report by means of his own imagination. Let him, in the act of using any of the more cunning and efficient little instruments of modern comfort, remind himself that this may well be one of the many “gadgets” which were conceived by the urchin-superman in his subterranean lair.

For some time John continued to show me his inventions. I may mention a parsley cutter, a potato-peeler, a number of devices for using old razor-blades as penknife, scissors, and so on. Others, to repeat, were destined never to be taken up, or never to become popular. Of these perhaps the most noteworthy was a startlingly efficient dodge for saving time and trouble in the water closet. John himself had doubts about some, including the detachable pocket. “The trouble is,” he said, “that however good my inventions are, Homo sapiens may be too prejudiced to use them. I expect he’ll stick to his bloody pockets.”

The kettle was boiling, so he made the coffee and produced a noble cake, made by Pax.

While we were drinking and munching I asked him how he got all his plant. “It’s all paid for,” he said. “I came in for a bit of money. I’ll tell you about that some day. But I want much more money, and I’ll get it too.”

“You were lucky to find this cave,” I said. He laughed. “Find it, you chump! I made it. Dug it out with pick and spade and my own lily-white hands.” (At this point he reached out a grubby and sinewy bunch of tentacles for a biscuit.) “It was the hell of a grind, but it hardened my muscles.”

“And how did you transport the stuff, that lathe, for instance?”

“By sea, of course.”

“Not in the canoe!” I protested.

“Had it all sent to X,” he said, naming a little port on the other side of the estuary. “There’s a bloke over there who acts as my agent in little matters like that. He’s safe, because I know things about him that he doesn’t want the police to know. Well, he dumped the cases of parts on the shore over there one night while I pinched one of the Sailing Club’s cutters and took her over to fetch the stuff. It had to be done at spring tide, and of course the weather was all wrong. When I got the stuff over I nearly died lugging it up here from the shore, though it was all in small pieces. And I only just managed to get the cutter back to her moorings before dawn. Thank God that’s all over. Have another cup, won’t you?”

Toasting ourselves over the oil-stove, we now discussed the part which John intended me to play in his preposterous adventure. I was at first inclined to scoff at the whole project, but what with his diabolical persuasiveness and the fact that he had already achieved so much, I found myself agreeing to carry out my share of the plan. “You see,” he said, “all this stuff must be patented and the patents sold to manufacturers. It’s quite useless for a kid like me to interview patents agents and business men. That’s where you come in. You’re going to launch all these things, sometimes under your own name, sometimes under sham names. I don’t want people to know they all come from one little brain.”

“But, John,” I said, “I should get stung every time. I know nothing about the job.”

“That’s all right,” he answered. “I’ll tell you exactly what to do in each case. And if you do make a few mistakes, it doesn’t matter.”

One odd feature of the relationship which he had planned for us was that, though we expected to deal with large sums of money, there was not to be any regularized business arrangement between us, no formal agreement about profit-sharing and liabilities. I suggested a written contract, but he dismissed the idea with contempt. “My dear man,” he said, “how could I enforce a contract against you without coming out of hiding, which I must not do on any account? Besides, I know perfectly well that so long as you keep in physical and mental health you’re entirely reliable. And you ought to know the same of me. This is to be a friendly show. You can take as much as you like of the dibs, when they begin to come in. I’ll bet my boots you won’t want to take half as much as your services are worth. Of course, if you start taking that girl of yours to the Riviera by air every week-end, we’ll have to begin regularizing things. But you won’t.”

I asked him about a banking account. “Oh,” he said, “I’ve had one running for some time at a London branch of the —— Bank. But the payments will have to be made to you at your bank mostly, so as to keep me dark. These gadgets are to go out as yours, not mine, and as the inventions of lots of imaginary people. You’re their agent.”

“But,” I protested, “don’t you see you’re giving me absolute power to swindle you out of the whole proceeds? Suppose I just use you? Suppose the taste of power goes to my head, and I collar everything? I’m only Homo sapiens, not Homo superior.” And for once I privately felt that John was perhaps not so superior after all.

John laughed delightedly at the title, but said, “My dear thing, you just won’t. No, no, I refuse to have any business arrangements. That would be too ‘sapient’ altogether. We should never be able to trust one another. Probably I’d cheat you all round, just for fun.”

“Oh, well,” I sighed, “you’ll keep accounts and see how the money goes.”

“Keep accounts, man! What in hell do I want with accounts? I keep ’em in my head, but never look at ’em.”

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Last updated Wednesday, March 5, 2014 at 22:30