By Aviva Treger
He carried the head of Stooky Bill along clifftop paths yellow with gorse, above the beach where dinosaur footprints claw the rocks.
He thought about Genesis; he dropped his Woodbine and crushed it underfoot. Uncoiling his tie, he thought, ‘What if, in the beginning, on his first attempt, God’s creations…failed to work?’
The idea filled him with hope.
On that new morning, shadows then sunlight bled through the glen – silver evolving to gold.
In a green glade, a chime of water pattered from a wall of old stone, curving like the dark side of a half-moon. Droplets glinting reminded him of the diamonds he once tried to invent from an alchemy of base elements. The memory made him sit and rake his hair.
Hush descended and the rhythmic plink of the water swelled. The world basked in a lush soporific lull. Insects circled in shafts of light.
From his knapsack he wrenched the head of Stooky Bill and propped him up in the moss amongst the butterflies.
Bill’s features kindled forming bulbous scowls and glowers. In a rasp like a dry susseration of kicked leaves, a crackling became words.
‘You…set fire to my hair’, he said. ‘You scorched me.’
The Inventor yawned and slid off his shoes, massaging his feet in their pneumatic undersocks.
‘Haha’, he replied. ‘Experiments go wrong.’
He gurned a silly grin as compensation.
Bill growled for a while then he said, ‘When you’re not looking…I’ll have revenge – an eye for an eye’.
The Inventor scratched his peeling sunburn. He recalled the human eye he once took possession of – to study how it worked, how it saw, if it could be fabricated and a new one invented.
‘And one day’, he said, ‘I’ll succeed’.
He bit his lip and his face dissolved.
‘I know the future’, said Bill. He lurched forward, his grimace distorting. ‘…and I guarantee your success’.
His voice sharpened and heightened: sly, zealous and hammy.
‘But out of your box of tricks you’ll summon a devil’, he said. ‘A putrifyer of minds…an un-stitcher of decency…a swindler of time…’
The Inventor chomped on his luncheon meat sandwich. He interrupted, tutting.
‘How can you know anything?’ he said.
‘You’re not alive’.
Bill’s chin plummeted.
‘I know secrets’, he said.
‘They would shock you.’
He seethed and jolted.
There was a pause and the trees shimmered. Over the cliffs, the sea dragged in shingle with the waves. A whirling murder of crows brawled across Fairlight Glen.
The Inventor rose and scooped his palms under the spring. He snatched up the clunky head of Stooky Bill and eyed him – the singed hair and the cracked cheeks. He fought an urge to sling him far into the copse, but instead he cooed.
‘Will you help me?’ he asked.
Bill’s lips twisted into a rictus.
‘Will you do exactly as I say?’ he answered.
At that moment, the sun vanished and the glade dimmed to a monochrome. A gust of wind snaked through the undergrowth; the giant ferns flustered. The air smelt feral – heavy with intent. The Inventor hurried off up the hill just as a silver veil of rain descended.
When the first flash of lightning blinded the landscape, he was out in the open meadow.
Stooky Bill wriggled, still in his grip, biting for attention.
‘If you want inspiration’, he said, ‘deep profound inspiration, my advice is to get struck by lightning.’
The Inventor snorted.
‘How ridiculous’, he said.
And yet he stopped. He peered up into the downpour, into the pewter sky where a window of ivory light revealed the hidden realms. From it, a crepuscular beam captured him in pearlescence and for a moment he thought he saw moving figures in the glow – angels or ghosts.
He shut his eyes and prayed to the deity of brainstorms, the god of invention. He exhaled with a theatrical whine and spread his arms wide – slavish, a willing initiate. As the wind whipped and the rain spattered and thrashed, he waited for revelation.
But nothing happened. Over the English Channel, opaque lightning skimmed the horizon far away. The Inventor slouched home, with his tweed suit sopping and the beginnings of yet another cold.
For a long time afterwards, Stooky Bill refused to speak and increased his puckish tampering with the instrument dials in the workshop. The Inventor continued his experiments frequently having to check the safety of his settings. Then one day, out of the blue, Bill reanimated and addressed him.
‘Do you want to remain a failure all your life?’ he said.
The Inventor made an O shape with his mouth.
He replied, ‘What the hell have you been doing with my equipment?’
‘I’m trying to help you succeed’, said Bill.
The Inventor scoffed at this. He chewed his fingernails.
‘It’ll cause an accident’, he muttered.
Bill continued in a pompous tone. ‘I suggest a new beginning, John’, he said. ‘A renewal of our efforts. I’m taking charge of the experiments now’.
The Inventor balled his fists. His face flushed. He glared at his shoes.
Then he roared. He grabbed Stooky Bill by the throat and squeezed. He shouted obscenities. He hurled him against the wall with a savage thwack and stormed from the room.
The next day, he returned. As the door swung open, the workshop seemed different: fresher, with a keen new clarity like the green smell of foliage after rain. He searched for Bill but his box was empty. He fetched James instead to sit under the lights.
The tests continued as normal but the electricity kept flickering on and off; so the Inventor examined the plugs and wires – and that’s when it happened. A crackle juddered the rig, a venomous hiss of a spark; and the next thing he knew, he was hammered across the floor to the opposite end of the studio, thrust backwards through space by a thousand volts.
As he lay howling, the angels from the portal of ivory sky seized him. They whispered and whirred; they exhaled sibilate cryptic knowledge over him like a crystalline mist. They bound him tightly with a crisp bolt from the blue and anointed him with eminence.
‘I’ve been initiated,’ he raved, and in a hoarse bark, he cried out again and again for Stooky Bill; then he sobbed until he laughed.
Afterwards, the Landlord of the building inspected the damage. He surveyed the workshop with a thunderous face.
‘Your demonstrations are unsafe’, he said.
The Inventor gestured with bandaged hands, his voice febrile, frenzied.
‘But I’m doing very important work here’, he said.
‘I’m sending moving pictures through wireless – this machine is called a televisor. It will change the world’.
The Landlord stared at his equipment – the tea chest, the bicycle lights, the darning needles and the hat box. He grimaced through his moustache.
‘He’s a lunatic’, he thought.
Then he asked, ‘Why are you holding the head of a ventriloquist’s dummy?’
The Inventor tittered.
‘This is Stooky Bill’, he replied, ‘my effusive muse.’ He hugged Bill like a puppy. ‘He’s made me see the light!’ he said. ‘And in return, wooden though he is, I’ve promised Bill a gift – that he’ll become the world’s first televised actor’.
He screeched with glee.
‘Him! An actor!’
The Landlord stiffened. He reached into his coat pocket.
‘Sir, I must evict you before there’s another catastrophe’, he said. ‘Here’s official notice’.
He placed an envelope on the table, half in the light, half in the shade; and on it, bold handwriting spelt out a name – John Logie Baird.
A gleam of pale sunshine touched the Inventor’s cheek, reflecting off the rim of his glasses as his smile waned. And then the scene faded – in colour, in brightness, in sharpness, in contrast, until all that remained was a dark grey mist in a hopeless storm, dissolving away into a single white dot.
Aviva Treger studied Ancient History at UCL then later trained as an actor with Questors Theatre in Ealing. She’s recently moved back to her home town of Hastings and has found its folklore and landscape to be an inspiration for strange stories.