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The imaginary town II: Mad Vernon

March 5, 2018

Welcome to the second installment. I hope you enjoy it.


I was banking over ready to take the corner on the bottom of the hill when the engine in my bike cut out. It was an MZ, an old eastern block two-stroke. Well, what do you expect for three hundred quid? I nearly fell over, but I remembered just in time to take in the clutch and apply the brakes. Even so, I nearly went into the hedge on the other side.

I’d long since developed a reasonable and justified fear of this machine’s temperamental faults. Usually, it was the spark plug. The spark plug would mysteriously oil up in the most disconcerting manner. No amount of mechanical pottering could trace the origin of this misery-inducing fault. Fortunately I was in the habit of carrying tools around with me- but not in the machine’s actual toolbox. It was barely held on. The tools were in my rucksack. I unclipped the top flap and drew the cord, and took out the plug spanner. On inspection, there was nothing wrong with the plug. But I brushed the fins on the engine, and they were hot. Oh great, I thought, it’s overheated again.

Just then, a voice came from behind the bushes.

“Oh, the perils of riding old two stroke motorcycles” the unseen speaker said. I laughed. A figure emerged at the gate in the hedge. He was a giant of a man, with unruly, silvering hair and a curious upright bearing. He wore an aged barbour jacket and holed, fading jeans. The overall impression was of a pleasant, retired gent.

“Overheated, eh?” He asked.

“Yes. I don’t know what to do.”

“You’d better leave her alone for a while to let it cool down, young man. Do come and have a cup of tea in the garden, it’s a lovely day.”

“Thank you very much”, I said, and pushed the machine over into the verge.

“This way” he said, brushing away the untidy greenery that clustered around the gate. I followed him into a sunlit yard, studded with the stumps of trees. It had obviously been cleared recently. Everywhere around me were tens, if not hundreds, of the most unlikely objects. There was a sculpture of a young woman, a clay dog, a toy tractor, all sorts of diverse and unlikely things.

“Let me just make the tea” said the benevolent giant and shuffled off inside the house, a decaying but pretty cottage, framed with wisteria and honeysuckle. I took a moment to look at the artefacts. They all seemed to have a compulsive quality. They begged to be touched, to be posessed. Even the concrete frog had a highly collectable look.

When my benefactor emerged from the house, he saw me looking at this collection of things.

“I collect what I call small sculptures” He said “Of course, to me anything desirable is a sculpture. I think even a burned out light bulb has a certain charm”. He passed me a cup of deep brown tea, the colour of mahogany.

“Of course, in retrospect, I think I should have specified some sort of limit to what counted as ‘small’” He said “By which I mean, I have a steam engine”.

“Pardon?” I asked. “Oh, a model one? My dad used to make those.”

“Oh no”He said “Come and look. It’s round the back.”

We passed a little gate by the side of the cottage, up a couple of low concrete steps. In the alley beyond, made narrow by clusters of objects, I noticed various objects. An old doll’s house with remarkably lifelike furniture sat side by side with a model triplane powered by a rubber band.

At the other end of the alley, a path made of round stepping stones headed out into a vast and neglected garden.

“Oh” He said “Where are my manners? My name is Vernon. They call me ‘mad Vernon’, but it doesn’t upset me much.”

“I don’t do much weeding, I’m afraid” He said. “I see it as a way of trying to bully nature. I much prefer to just let things grow.”

I could see something huge, bulky and green concealed behind a knot of bushes. Was this the steam engine? Vernon led me around behind them, and sure enough there it was- a compact green tank engine, sitting on tracks. The tracks had been concealed by a slight rise in the ground, but now I saw that they described a wide circle, around the woods and fields surrounding the house. How on earth could something like this be invisible from the road?

“Wow” I said, inarticulately. “You wouldn’t think this was here judging by the view from the road”

“No” He said, sipping his tea “I contrive to keep my little engine well hidden. Those planning officials can be ever so tiresome. I hardly see how anybody ever gets anything done in this country with those hawk-eyed officials observing everything. It’s wonderful to have so much land. I can hide nearly anything in my little abode here. I haven’t shown you the aeroplane yet, have I?”

He seemed in no hurry to do so. I was still taken aback by the scale of what he had hidden here in his garden.

“As you can see, my hesitance to define the word ‘small’ has led me down strange paths. The word ‘small’, you see, is relative. My statue of minerva in the front yard, barely knee height, is small compared to the original, and my little tank engine is small compared to, say, the flying scotsman”.

I could begin to see why the locals had named this man ‘mad Vernon’. I couldn’t bring myself to say this to the kind stranger who had invited me into his garden, but he could obviously see what I was thinking, because he said

“Oh yes, you see, I am mad I’m afraid. Quite, quite barmy. But it doesn’t seem to upset me at all.”

He continued. “You see, it’s important to me that what I collect has a life. That it does what it was intended to do. Veronica the steam engine here was never intended to stand idle, collecting rust, so of course I had to have these tracks built so that she could steam gently around. I clean her down, oil her and take her around once a week or so. When I’ve got time away from my other predilictions.”

I didn’t know what to say. I just stood there, drinking tea. A thought occurred to me.

“But who laid the tracks?” I asked, thinking that there was far too much work involved for one elderly man.

“Oh, various people. A lot of the boys around here come to see my engine from time to time. I seem to collect hangers-on as well as my little objects. It’s tremendously gratifying to see one’s life’s work appreciated to the extent that people will pitch in, you know.”

Mad Vernon, I was to learn, had a strange habit of appearing to read minds. I was speculating, to my shame, about how he could possibly afford it.

“Inheritance, dear boy. If one is so incredibly fortunate as to inherit a lot of money, I feel one should do something worthwhile with it. I intend to open a museum one day. Of course, anyone can come and see my little collection any time they like, but it would be so lovely if I could advertise and draw in the wider world. I have a passion for these things, you see, and I intend to share my collection with humanity at large. Quite how it will all work out I have no idea, but for now I simply enjoy my collection.” He sipped his tea. “Of course, the aeroplane! I must show you my aeroplane.”

We ambled slowly down a long, winding path of grey concrete stepping stones that lead through a hedge of mature trees, almost a woodland. Concealed in the limbs of the trees was a large shed.

“Do give me a hand with the door, my poor old back isn’t what it was” he said.

Together, we lifted a large baulk of timber from two brackets that were bolted to the doors. Vernon then swung open the doors. What a difference there was- the outside of the shed was decayed and ramshackle, but interior was neat and orderly, with spare parts and tools arranged tidily on shelves. In the centre lay a small aeroplane, silvery and gleaming, with rivets countersunk into the dazzling gleam of the steel. The thing gave an impression of speed and was no larger, all told, than a small car.

“As you can see, small compared to other aircraft. I’m told it once belonged to Howard Huges” said Vernon “A great man. Such a pity his mind went to hell the way it did. A true pioneer.”

Beyond the shed was a field, cropped short, with a landing strip running its length away from the shed. I speculated about the amount of work involved in the upkeep of this marvel.

“And now, dear boy, we must take a look at your motorcycle. Do let me know if you intend to sell it one day- those little two strokes are quite the thing for zipping around country lanes.”

And so, we walked back to the road, my head swimming with what I’d seen. And I found myself volunteering to come back and help maintain the airfield. Vernon, I was to learn, had a knack of attracting camp followers.

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