THOMAS' CONTRAPTION

Many, many, thousands of years ago, way back in the mists of history, there lived on the shores of a wide East Coast estuary in ancient Britain, a very resourceful and enterprising young man. His talent for inventing new ways of earning his bread became legendary, even amongst his own people. But most people today will never have heard of him. But, you may be surprised to know, he was a Sutton lad.

Hunting and fishing were as natural to this young man as sleeping and walking. He always looked for an easier way of doing a task. Thomas was about 10 years old, and what today you might call ... an Entrepeneur.  He was also what we today would call an Ancient Briton.  But he wouldn't have thought himself ancient, being only 10.  And a Briton, well, he'd have thought that was some new term of abuse or rudeness.  A bit like when his father called him a Brat.  That didn't sound all that nice, but he wasn't entirely sure what a Brat was either.

Thomas lived with his father and mother and eight sisters, in the last wattle and daub straw-roofed dwelling in the ancient village of Sudtone, well before you came to the fast-flowing creek. When Thomas wasn't helping his parents pull logs and brushwood home, he would be out hunting for duck and waders on the banks of the marshy estuary, or up this fast-flowing creek nearby that flowed into it, trying to help his father catch fish. Thomas once asked his father what this little river was called, but he could only get the very vague reply, "er, Ull." Not at all satisfactory. When he once asked what the other big river was called, a village elder told him, "Umb, and mind his own business!"

Game birds and fish were the settlement's staple diet. Skins for basic garments were fashioned from hares and rabbits and small rodents, shrews, voles and the like. Or occasional mammals like beaver and otter, or from the rare wild hog that might stray from the edge of the dark, dank, mysterious forest that lay only a morning's walk away from the river, a forest that would many years later be called the King's Wood and one day become a hive of frantic commercial activity.

Fishing was much more hazardous, requiring great skill to balance upon a carefully chosen log, one chosen from the thousands of logs brought downstream each day on the ebb tide. Thomas was notorious within his encampment for his inventiveness. He had been clever enough to hit on the idea of lashing two logs together with rushes and osiers to make a more stable fishing platform.

The problem of being tipped unexpectedly into the water when just about to land the catch had long perplexed him. He had discovered his invention by accident really, even though his father basked and revelled in the esteem accorded him by the village elders for having such a fine, inventive son. But the real honour, Thomas knew, should be given to the God of Chance.

For it was chance that caused another log, festooned like his own log with sideshoots and minor branches, to get tangled up with his own log, thereby floating more stably and less inclined to roll over. Yes, he could swim, like a fish, and didn't usually mind being wet, but he was just well sick of being tipped into the water just when he didn't want to be. It wasn't always warm.

But this happy accident of the more stable logs intrigued him, and so distracted was he by his new found stability, and prowess at controlling his logs, that he was swept far down the big river, so far that he feared he would end up in the big lake and fall off the end of the world. Everyone knew, even small boys, that if you strayed too far out of sight down the big river, you would be swept out into the big lake and . . . tipped off the edge of the world. So just before getting there, to the edge, he would reluctantly spurn his poor logs and abandon them at that point before they left the big river, and then swim ashore into a wild tide-swept haven, usually spending most of that night and the next day walking home all along the muddy foreshore. Then he would be in trouble with his ma, as small boys do everywhere since the beginning of time, for having mucky feet.

He was walking along the muddy, gravelly bank, one day, still a long way from home, when his double log of late acquaintance quickly overtook him on the fast flowing flood tide, and disappeared up-river!  Would you know it! The Gods of the Wind and the Tide didn't want his log after all, and had sent the blasted thing back! Thomas gave a disgruntled grunt and angrily kicked a stone, and stubbed his toe, which hurt like blazes. It hurt even more because the tide was running back faster than he could walk and he now had to do a fair old trot on his little legs to catch it up. Nevertheless, within a few more weeks, he had almost perfected the technique of the correct lashings to hold two logs together and could almost guarantee those lashings not to part, so not causing him to do the splits and pitch him for the thousandth time into the swirling muddy waters. Cold muddy waters, I might add.

At first though, the village elders were not impressed. Adults rarely were back then. They claimed the new craft was not as manoeuvrable as the traditional single seat model. No, it would never catch on, they said. They'd been around a long time and knew what they were talking about.

No, the wise old men of the village much preferred to sit astride the single log, paddling furiously with their feet, thus imitating in the time-honoured way the propulsion of ducks. Ducks got around okay. These young kids were always coming up with such corny ideas.

Thomas was not to be put off. He struggled valiantly on with his inventing, frequently losing a new model by being swept far down the river and getting stuck on a sandbank. From where he would have to hitch a lift home from a stray single-seater log running light upriver on the flood tide. Though unpeturbed by such setbacks, it was still another two years before he hit on the next major development. Three logs. Yes, progress now deemed that three logs were better than two. And this had come about quite by accident too. Pressure of work, so to speak, had caused him to be so tired that, one day, instead of lashing just two logs together for his growing number of customers, he lost count of his lashings and lashed a third to the first two. Before he knew it, he had tipped the confounded thing into the river. And, wow, what a difference! It was almost impossible to turn over, for a start.

It was shortly after this that Thomas discovered, or can we say invented, the paddle. Pride and good-standing with his betters caused him to claim the latter. Surely he had invented it, not merely discovered it. He had been using a broken off piece of log to try to extricate himself from a tangle of loose logs when he tried to push himself away by feeling for the shallow bottom in a muddy creek. But the branch was too short, and instead, the movement of the branch through the water seemed to make his triple-log fishing platform go faster. Then it was just a matter of perfecting it until it was the right shape. The right shape, he found after long practice, was to carve and fashion the wood until it resembled something like a duck's webbed foot, with the addition of a long handle. Very important, the long handle. Thomas found that it helped to keep your face out of the water. Cold water too, at times, positively freezing!

Now that did impress the elders. They had seen nothing like it, and Thomas was quickly commissioned to make paddles for the whole settlement. Strangely, it was one of the doubting elders that caused his sales, and thus his income of winter food, to be doubled. The old man had pointed out, quite logically for an old man, on seeing a demonstration of the new duck's foot tool, that it couldn't possibly work. Not just by itself. Ducks had two feet.  Everyone laughed, enjoying the joke at this little upstart's expense.

Thomas answered this criticism quickly - he simply got hold of a second paddle, one he had just made, sat astride a log, and paddled off with both paddles out into the estuary current at almost twice the speed that a man had ever gone before on such a small craft. The assembled throng of elders and older fishermen were aghast. Everyone now wanted two paddles.

Now, of course, Thomas didn't need to fish for himself, or his family. He had a trade, just like his father had always wanted him to have. Hadn't his father always said, if you want to get on my lad, you've got to get a trade.  He could now pay, in paddles of course, for someone else to catch his fish. But even the village boys ganged up on him, and all refused to catch his fish for less than a minimum rate of exchange of five fish per one paddle, only half the rate Thomas had hoped for.

Settling on a rate of seven fish per paddle, we now know this to be the very earliest example of local collective bargaining. But the current state of affairs was not entirely satisfactory, even when one paddle exchanged at seven fish. Thomas knew that he could catch more than seven fish in the time it took him to make one paddle. He also knew that his kinsmen were catching more fish than ever before, simply by the use of his invention. They, his kinsmen, as well as those from visiting tribes further up the big river, did regard the paddle as his invention. But not so in the case of the twin or triple raft.

These they made for themselves, those that wanted one, and never even offered Thomas a fee of any sort for his invention. Sheer blatant piracy! That's what he called it. A rip-off!  But they still bought their paddles from him, unable to fashion them for themselves, not having the right tools. Many still used single paddles, being too frightened by the speed of the twin-paddle version, claiming they often crossed the whole estuary before they knew it. Some of the men became so late so often for dinner that their wives forbad the use of double paddles and confiscated any second one they found. To be caught with two paddles in some households was worse than being caught with two wives. But single paddles just didn't provide Thomas with an adequate income.

Thomas hit on the idea of charging more for a double paddle set, and then on the further idea of refusing to sell paddles singly. They were not worth his while, single paddles. From now on, anyone who wanted a paddle had to buy two, in a pack tied together with reeds. Both together. No credit. No terms. Perhaps the first example ever known of product bundling.

This worked well for a month or two, but then sales dropped back to previous levels. Thomas could never work it out. Most were still using single paddles, but no-one bought single paddles from him - he refused to supply them. He just didn't know where they were getting them from, for he had upped, or tried to up, the exchange rate for these also, to fourteen fish for a double paddle set. Which, to Thomas seemed fair. But the village fisher boys insisted on only thirteen fish for a double paddle set. Someone was being stuffed here ... Market forces? Huh!

Thomas started doing special offers, and discounts for quantity. He had never worked so hard. He sold more double paddle sets than ever before, but hardly ever saw anyone using more than one at a time.

The villagers were catching more fish, that was certain. He felt exploited, did Thomas, and not a little miffed. One day, enough was enough, he decided, and, slinging down the paddle he was making, went off in search of his Union Rep. As such an animal had not then been invented, of course, he couldn't find one.

Presently, running low on fish, he resumed his new-found trade, but hit on the idea of making paddles with a concealed crack in the wood just above the blade. So that after only a few days, the paddle would break in two, thus bringing him a far steadier trade. Consumerism had thus been invented.

One day, Thomas was dragging yet another log by way of an osier rope over his shoulder, from the river up to his workplace. He spied, just in time, a neat pile of formerly stacked logs roll away after a cat had chased a mouse under the pile and dislodge the lot. He had seen such a sight many times before, but then had usually been beside himself with mirth at the antics of the poor cat, torn between saving its skin or saving its dinner.

But this time, Thomas' attention was grabbed by the fact that several of the logs rolled away together, one seemingly pushing the others along. Thomas could feel an invention coming on. Over and over the logs rolled, just like they sometimes did on the water when the tide was running exceptionally fast. An idea flashed into his brain. Dropping the log he was towing, he hobbled up to his workplace, for he had dropped the log he was carrying on his foot, seized a flint-headed axe, and began hacking away at the end of a rather thin log, but just a bit too thick to be called a pole.

About six changes of flint axe-head later, he had severed a slice of log from the end of its parent, and proceeded to cut another the same. Neither slice, when completed was particularly neat, and neither perfectly round. But then, these were only prototypes. Just to see if the idea worked, you understand.

Many axe heads later, as light was fading, he had two roughly round slices of log, each slice about as thick as the log itself was round. A few more days work, during which he totally neglected paddle-making and thus annoyed some of his best customers, he had cut a deep hole into the thickness of the middle of each slice. Each large slice of wood now resembled a large and very rough doughnut. Not that Thomas would have known what a doughnut was, they hadn't been invented back then.

Inserting the end of a tight-fitting smaller log into the hole in one slice, he then fitted the other slice to the other end of the pole. Many of the small boys and girls of the village watched patiently as he laboured, and many asked him what he was doing. But all Thomas would say, as he picked up yet another new and sharper axe was that "this axe'll do it." When their parents later questioned these offspring about what the young genius was up to now, all they could tell was that Thomas has made something called an axle. Of course, they hadn't a clue what he was on about. Kids, they do come out with some rubbish at times.

Thomas' new contraption looked rather like a very rough set of weight-lifter's weights, except that Thomas couldn't lift them. No one could lift them. And he had been that many days making his new invention, he had forgot what it was for, and he stomped around his workyard in frustration. He knew he had invented something, perhaps something mindblowing, but what it was, he couldn't be quite sure.

He decided to take his monstrous log, with the thick wooden plates on the end, along to his father. Maybe his father could throw some light on what it could be used for. Getting it there would be an effort though. Too heavy to drag or lift, he put his mind to how the short journey of perhaps only three or four hundred metres (we hadn't converted to English then) might be best achieved. The ideas wouldn't come, and in a small fit of anger, he gave his contraption a mighty kick. It hurt, for safety toecaps had not yet been invented either. But the contraption rolled a little, maybe three of four feet. That was it! He'd got the answer. Roll it along to his fathers' hut, and see what he could make of it.

Thomas was proudly rolling his invention along the riverbank, bumping along nearing his father's abode, when suddenly, the strangest thing happened. His contraption, after being given one mighty push, seemed to take on a life of its own, and without any further pushing, rolled and bumped along, to Thomas' undisguised delight. But then, it was as if the sloping ground down to the lower part of the riverbank seemed to take a hold, and with a mind of its own, it gathered speed alarmingly and hurtled down the bank, heading, Thomas could plainly see now, for just the point where his father was standing at the water's edge, answering the call of nature as he relieved himself into the muddy estaurial waters.

Thomas, not being entirely daft, immediately perceived his father's imminent danger, and tried to grunt something along the lines of "Look Out!" or "Watch yer' Back!", or even just plain old "Shift yer' arse!"

But such words and expressions of warning had not yet been invented, so Thomas resorted to what people always did in those far off days to warn of impending disaster. He shut his eyes and clapped his hands. He, by this expedient method, would not see what was plainly about to happen, and could therefore absolve himself of most, if not all, of the blame for the consequences. People are much the same today, often claiming if called as a witness to a particular accident or occurrence, not to have seen a thing.

Thomas' contraption rumbled and crashed and banged its way down the steep bank, sounding very much like approaching thunder, thus drowning out Thomas' warning handclaps. Or else Thomas' father, knowing that thunder had been forecast that day, thought nothing of it and continued to make his "piece" with nature.

His father did, though, look up at the sky just at the last moment, just as he was finished and shaking himself dry, when Thomas' contraption hit him square in the small of the back and pitched him into air in the general direction of the river.

As Thomas opened his eyes, having missed the aforementioned collision, it was to see his father turning over and over in the air before hitting the water flat, with a terrific splash. The rolling monstrosity of shaped timber followed him into the water with an even bigger splash and showered the hapless parent with a second sheet of water just as he was coming up for air.

Somehow, Thomas could tell, purely by the stunned look on his father's bedraggled face and beard as he trod water manfully, that his parent was not impressed by his son's latest invention. Whatever it was he had invented, it wasn't going to earn him any brownie points. Not today, it wasn't.

Thomas returned to the village some nine or ten days later, in the middle of the night, in the hope he would see his mother before his father could catch him. Though completely worn out and in need of a rest, Thomas couldn't put out out of his mind just how fast his father could run, even at his advanced age, and sokking wet too! The old geezer had quite a turn of speed when he had a mind to.  It had been after some boggy ten miles or so up the banks of the fast-flowing creek that his father had reluctantly given up the chase and left Thomas to skulk about on the edge of the forest. He hadn't any paddles either, to catch any fish, and that was the very first ever known occurrence of being up a creek without a paddle.

So, driven by the need of a good meal and a cup of tea, Thomas went home. Besides, there was another consideration. His father had control of the complete stock of flint axes, which he acquired from time to time from some travelling rep, and without which Thomas had no hope of building another contraption. As to that first contraption, presumably, the prototype had floated away down the river to be lost forever over the edge of the world.

Thomas' second contraption, the Mark II, didn't take nearly so long to make, but he still had to endure the frozen looks from his father each time the much-miffed old man came near him. And occasionally, the odd swipe from the back of his hand.

Father was not given to easy forgiveness. Later the next day, when Thomas espied his father standing at his favourite spot on the riverbank helping to swell the tide, he couldn't help but notice his father's backward over-the-shoulder glances, in a very nervous fashion, very watchful in the rearward direction up the reedy slope behind him.

Thomas had now reached a sort of impass with his invention. He could feel in his bones that it was something momentous, but apart from the vague possibility of defending the settlement from marauders advancing up the riverbank, he was at a total loss as to what to do with it. He thought about making another, but as he had no idea what to do with the one he had got, there didn't seem much point. He reasoned he would have double the trouble, leading perhaps to twenty days in the wilderness instead of ten.

Besides, his father didn't seem to care much for the replacement contraption either, always giving it a wide berth, even though this one had never done anything to hurt him. Thomas very cleverly hit on the idea of some wooden chocks to wedge the contraption to the ground, purely to forestall any possibility of a repeat mishap. Some of the village elders, chiefs and senior council members, used a much more sacred watering place, just up-river from his father's. Thomas' limited imagination just couldn't grasp the long term consequences for his family should perchance a similar fate befall one of them when they were piecing together their parts of nature.

Besides, what about his mother and his sisters? When they disappeared into the long grass and reeds near the water's edge, they were practically invisible. No, he could take no chances. He had the recurring feeling that he should maybe disconnect something, but perhaps he was just a little ahead of his time in that respect.

About two moons later, just after sun-up when he was testing an improved version of his latest paddle, he saw something floating up the river that made his heart leap. At first, he barely recognised it.  But yes, it was, it was HIS contraption, his first contraption, slowly coming back from its journey to the edge of the world, bobbing along quite merrily, it's round appendages still fixed to each end of the long pole.

How it had survived the tremendous forces of some of the waves out there, Thomas couldn't begin to guess. He gave a whoop of delight and bounded a dozen or so leaps along the foreshore to reach his collection of crooked sticks and branches, kept handy to hook in just such unexpected items of salvage. The ancient Briton was nothing if not an intrepid beachcomber, much of the instinct of which survives in local people to this day, and not always on beaches.

Once hauled a safe distance up the beach, Thomas stood gazing lovingly at his homing contraption, covered though it was with strands of barnacles, seaweed, and a generous coating of thick, black foreshore mud. It took most of the rest of the day to lash an osier rope onto the horizontal pole and tug the whole thing up the track through the reeds to his workplace, to be placed alongside the Mark II version. Then it had to be washed, but it was too early and too cold for that.

So he spent some time in pulling off loose remaining strands of seaweed and the late afternoon sun dried and cracked the viscous mud which fell away in huge flakes. Thomas gazed adoringly upon both of his creations, one parked behind the other, both now securely chocked. He couldn't risk two of these, as yet useless pieces of equipment, rolling away down the reedbank to skittle God knows who into the river.

And several times now already, he'd had to chase away one or the other of his many sisters who had been showing an unatural curiosity in these huge slices of tree trunk connected by a thinner trunk in the middle. Thomas was convinced in his own mind that there just had to be some purpose for these things. But it was no good. It wouldn't come to him.

So for several days, the contraptions stayed where they were, whilst many other villagers showed more than a passing interest in the strange-looking objects. Even Thomas' own mother nodded a few appreciative grunts of approval when she passed by. Some of the other villager's wives stood in a group, laughing and giggling, pointing to his fathers hut, and miming to the others with crude gestures the basic events of the mishap that befell his father.

It occurred to Thomas that perhaps his mother may have some idea of what might be done with these things. But he refrained from asking her. He settled down to the conclusion that his mother probably thought they were some from of modern works of art, without any idea of a practical use. Though, neither for that matter, had Thomas.

Who went back to making paddles. In a strange sort of way, it was the paddles that solved the problem of what to do with the contraptions. In order to get more long poles to make more paddles, Thomas had to make one of his long journeys up to the wild wood to replenish his dwindling stock. Well, the river didn't provide everything.

In the hope of being able to collect more timber than he alone could carry or tow behind him, he took a cousin along to the woods with him. They returned one misty morning three days later with dozens of long alder poles, carrying some over their shoulders in single-file-coolie fashion, but towing many others behind each of them. On one of the poles slung between them was the carcass of a small pig, already on its spit and ready for roasting. They would feast well that night, and his parents would be proud of him.

For want of anywhere else dry to store his new stock, Thomas threw most of the new longer poles over the two contraptions. The poles, some more than twelve feet long, rolled and spread out into a single layer.

Thomas noticed that the contraptions now appeared to be joined together in a sort of pagan wedlock. Aha! Now then. What have we here, Thomas pondered. He could feel another idea coming on, and all started to become clear as he pulled the first contraption clear and lashed some of the poles across its axle, if that is what it was called.

He hummed and grunted as he worked, giving his father a happy smile as the old man passed by with armfulls of freshly cut reeds for mending the roof on their detatched dwelling. Father always eyed him suspiciously these days, and usually gave his son as reasonably a wide a berth as possible. But not quite wide enough on this day.

Having lashed about six good, stout poles to the axle, with just as good, tight lashings as he could make them, Thomas set about heaving on one of the end slices to see if it would roll as before. It wouldn't move, so he kicked the chocks out of the way and enlisted the help of his cousin to heave on it again. Thomas' father was just passing by, though not too closely, when the contraption moved all of a sudden on the uneven ground, and six long alder poles of tight lashings swung up into the air in a huge arc and came round and down to fetch his father a massive swipe across the back of his head. And his shoulders. And most of his back.

Thomas could see what was going to happen, but was powerless to stop it - once he had given the contraption a mighty heave, other forces seemed to take over. So he shut his eyes. He missed seeing the pole that broke in two over his father's broad and bearded head. The beating from the other poles he may have withstood, for he was a strong man, but the one that broke was the one felled his luckless pater, who went down like a wild ox.

For a few seconds, Thomas was undecided as to whether start running straight away. The old man could get a good head of steam up when he was mad, so it may perhaps be wise to go now and get a head start. It was a long way to the wild wood. Thomas didn't want to run all that way again, and besides, he didn't want to spend at least forty nights away from the bosom of his family. A quick totting up in his head told Thomas this was what this little mishap was going to cost him. He hopped gingerly from one foot to the other, trying to make his mind up. He didn't want to run if it wasn't really necessary. So, for the moment, he hopped.

He looked around, guiltily, to see if anyone else had witnessed how this demonic thing had just attacked his father, and without any prior warning. The old man, lying prostate and motionless face down in the dust, didn't stir. Thomas decided to sit this one out and watch what happened next. He looked around for his cousin, perhaps with a notion of some sharing of the blame. But his cousin, giving full appraisal to the situation, had already skipped, and was already halfway to the wildwood before the old man had hit the ground.

It was a good long while before his father moved. Thomas had no way of knowing how long it was, but the sun was going down and he was getting hungry. Mother would be getting the tea about now. Thomas was just about to give the old man up as a bad job, and was thinking in terms of his inheritance, (an unlimited supply of flint axes and other nefarious tools for a start), when his father stirred and gave out a long moan. Realising the brief hope of the toolkit was deminishing, the question now re-arose as to whether to run.

Thomas' father rubbed the back of his head a while, before sitting up, and then tried to get to his feet. And failed, falling back, flat out once again. He opened his eyes and saw his son's eyes peering closely down into his own. But he didn't recognise this person as his son. He didn't recognise him as anybody. Thomas' father had seemingly lost his memory. I wonder what had caused that.

For some reason, as his poor father slowly recovered and finally got to his feet, Thomas did not run. He stayed and helped the injured pater totter a few steps in the direction of his hut. They hadn't gone very far when they met Thomas' mother approaching from the same direction and carrying a large wooden ladle, obviously on the lookout for her errant husband. Seeing her spouse, being helped by her son as he staggered along, might have aroused feelings of anxiety and tenderness in her feminine breast.

But in this case no. She automatically concluded, as females the world over are wont to do, that her other half was drunk, and responded in the time honoured way of all wives on finding their husbands the worse for drink and nursing a sore head.

She set about him with the large wooden ladle, causing the old man to gather unexpected speed as he broke away from his son's guided help and made haste away from this harridan now persuing him with a painful kitchen implement. The wild terrified look in his eyes said more than the fact that the husband didn't recognise his wife either. It said that he felt that the whole world was turning against him and he was being persued by demons. And he had a headache. One hell of a headache. Oh boy, did he have a headache.

It took some time for Thomas to realise the implications of these events. He knew in his own mind that he should have run and secreted himself away in the forest, for a whole full-moon period at least. Instead, it was his father who had run, almost as fast as before, and Thomas had not been able to catch him. He couldn't understand it. He couldn't understand his mother's anger either. His father ran as if a sea-monster were chasing him, but when Thomas overtook his mother and tried to reason with his fast-disappearing father, the old man simply gave a wild look over his shoulder, a blood curdling scream, and doubled his speed.

Thomas sat on a little hillock of grass, little hillocks being very plentiful hereabouts, and gave the matter some thought. It was as plain as day. His father had run away. And this without having had the benefit of seeing his son's latest invention. Very strange. Aahha! The invention! Thomas must not forget his invention. He didn't yet know what he had invented or what it may be used for. But it sure felled fathers, and no mistake. And made them run.

And run Thomas' father did. All the way to the forest. He didn't return for many a year. He had lost his memory, making it difficult for him to know just where to return to.

The invention, surprisingly, was just where Thomas had left it. Surprisingly because it seemed to have a life of its own, be alive with spirits or some other peculiar life force. He wouldn't have been surprised if it had disappeared, or if some of the other villagers had moved it. But that was the last thing that would be likely to happen to it. Word travels fast in small communities, as fast then as now, if not faster. Word had got round about the lethal power of Thomas' latest invention, which struck out without warning or reason at anybody it could reach. No-one would go near it.

For several days, Thomas tinkered on and off with his large wooden toy, feeling sure that there must be a use, some real purpose, for his invention. He gently pushed and prodded it, being mindful of what it had done to his father, to see if it would move. Getting more and more adventurous, he swung the whole thing back and forth, making the long poles arc across the sky, just as it had done when it went for his father, forwards and backwards until he grew bored, and sat down.

Some of the previously tight lashings, with all this to-ing and fro-ing, had become loose, and those poles refused to move with the same determination as the others. Eventually, none of the poles would move much at all.

Thomas rolled the thing back and forth, and by and by, gave it up and went back to making sets of double paddles. It was several weeks later, after fetching more timber from the forest, that Thomas recalled just what he was going to do with his lashed poles on his axle at the time when it had attacked his father.

He was going to lay the other end of the poles on his other contraption, the Mk I, and lash the poles to it in the same way as the first. How could he have forgot such a simple idea. Thomas kicked himself, hard, in mock punishment, and set about continuing with his original idea.

In less than an hour, he had lashed all the poles, about ten of them, to the other axle, nice and tight. He renewed all the lashings to the MkII that had worn loose. Having finished and tied the last knot, he tried to push the whole thing along. Something told him it should move, somehow. But it wouldn't, not hardly an inch. It all wobbled about a bit, but no real movement. Nor would the poles swing across and try to swipe anyone, which puzzled him. For there were plenty to choose from. Memories being short, most villagers had totally forgotten what had happened to Thomas' father only a few weeks ago, and children played in and out of and underneath the twin-axled contraption with gay abandon. Some even tried to climb upon it! Arrgghh! Sacrilege!! Couldn't they see that this was potentially an important invention.

For several more days, Thomas tried to make the damned thing move. He got some long lengths of reed-twine and made a sort of harness which he put around his neck and over his shoulders, tying the end to the middle of one of the axles. But no, it still would budge. Again, after several more days and many childrens' games, the new lashings loosened. Thomas one afternoon, detected that the whole thing rolled slightly. It did! It moved, only a bit, but it moved.

Several children were exalted to assist Thomas in his endeavours. Laughing and screaming, they pushed and they shoved, whilst Thomas, with his rope around his shoulders heaved and hoved. The whole thing started to move, or rather to roll, roll along, bumping along, for the axles were of two different sizes, and none of the four "wheels" were exactly identical in size or in cylindrical shape.

In fact, one was almost square, with round corners, giving the contraption a very odd appearance as it limped slowly along, one corner rising and falling as the exited crowd of boys and girls got into the spirit of the occasion and pushed and shoved it along. For now they were pushing faster than Thomas was pulling. Right out of Thomas' little riverside workyard and along the wide, well-worn track that led to the main part of the village. The children laughed and screamed, so much that adults stopped their work, came out of their houses, just to see what all the noise was about.

The contraption gathered speed as it reached a slight downhill section, and Thomas began to sense that it was chasing him and ran faster. Suddenly, it was going so fast that it nudged Thomas in the back, and in desperation, he turned to try and slow it down, failed, nearly went under it before making a mighty jump, clambering up onto the alder poles as they bounced and swayed along on top of the now free-running axles.

At this very moment, the moment when Thomas jumped up onto his contraption, was invented the concept of the "passenger". Thomas, unwittingly became the world's very first ever passenger, albeit on the world's first ever out-of-control driverless vehicle. Of course, no sooner had Thomas done this than several of the children, sensing that this could be fun, also managed to jump aboard the tail end. One unfortunate didn't quite make it, and stumbling as he fell, the rear square-shaped wheel ran over his foot thus rendering him the world's very first casualty of the world's very first road traffic accident.

This was fast becoming a day for the setting of world records, but Thomas was blissfully unaware of his new status in the record books, having never heard of Guinness, and hung on for dear life itself as the wayward contraption bounded and thundered along towards the village at the momentous and unheard of speed of eight miles per hour.

Thomas certainly realised that he had invented something, his contraption did something, if only frighten people to death, as several of the villagers, taken by surprise and nearly skittled by the wooden monster, were running about twenty yards ahead desperately looking for a tree. For even in those days, people knew one was safe if one could get up a tree. Generally, that is. But here, near Sudtone on the edge of the fast-flowing creek, there were few trees.

And "contraption" was now a word to be conjured with. It was only a contraption so long as it was useless and did nothing. But now it did something, it was hardly a contraption. The word naturally had to be shortened. To capt. Yes, this moving mobile monster was now a capt. It's just that someone over the intervening several thousand years since stuck an extra leg on the "p" and made it an "R". So it became a cart. But in America, they simply left off the con, dropped off the tion and called it a trap.

And so, everyone, that is how the very first cart was ever invented. But Thomas realised, as he bumped and bowled along, that his cart lacked certain modern refinements.

Like, for instance, a steering wheel. As Thomas' cart headed for the main group of buildings in the centre of the village, it occurred to Thomas that having no steering wheel was a serious drawback to product development. He tried lowering his right foot to the ground in an effort to slow the thing down, and another revelation hit him straight between the eyes as the stones and dust quickly took the skin off his heels.

Brakes! He had no brakes. What use was something that moved if you couldn't stop it. So even if the actual mechanics of a suitable braking system were not devised there and then, the idea was certainly born. Most things are invented out of necessity.

No brakes. No steering. And, may we take it, no insurance or MOT. Quite a catalogue of offences, if one were to take the modern view. Though none of these serious breaches of the law troubled Thomas as the main central building of the village, the ancient wooden long-house, loomed up in front of him. The combined Village Chief's residence AND centre of local parliament rolled into one, a sort of ancient-Briton version of County Hall-cum-Police HQ, was easily the largest building for miles around. Visitors, upon asking directions, would be told they could hardly miss it. Though Thomas now wished he could.

The children's laughter from the back of the cart turned to screams as several of them, being of quicker brain than Thomas and seeing what was about to happen, leapt bodily away from the venomous vehicle and into the reeds and dust on either side of the track. In doing so, of course, they became the first passengers ever to leave a vehicle without paying their fare.

Thomas, however, took the view that it had taken a long time to develop the thing this far, and he was not going to be induced to abandon his beloved cart for anyone. Besides, he was too scared to jump. He knelt down lower, almost hugging the alder poles with his hands only an inch or two behind the now madly spinning front axle, himself shaking madly with the furious motion of the cart, his hunting horn hanging from his leather belt banging relentlessly onto the floor of loose poles and adding to the din.

For some unknown reason, probably a sudden dip in the ground, the cart gathered even more momentum, and struck the gable end of the massive timber-framed wattle and daub long-house at about fifteen miles an hour, which promptly collapsed behind Thomas as the cart sped through the width of the building, crashed through the opposite wall and passed cleanly back out into the bright sunshine, all without appearing to sustain any damage to the cart whatsoever. Thomas looked back, which they say you should never do, in time to see the rest of the huge building, now minus its main end support and one or two central roof poles, collapse in a magnificent display of dust, debris, and feathers. A complete roost of hens, a colony of bats and a flock of doves were rendered homeless in one fell swoop. The village council would now have to find a new place to moot.

The wayward cart, untroubled by the disaster left in its wake, rumbled on, now toward the river. Something had shifted its course, (the cart, not the river) for even Thomas could appreciate that it had left the ruins of the long-house at a far different angle to how it had entered it. It was going faster now, as if being pushed. Thomas ventured again, as best he could, to look back, and saw that his beloved cart had indeed been damaged. Greviously damaged. It was now minus its square, rear offside wheel. And going like hell for the river. And on fire, he noted with mild surprise. The lashings of reeds and twine made from animal gut, previously tight but now quite loose, were smouldering from the friction of the rotating axle, and as he watched, another one sparked and burst into flame. Now there was a development, he thought. Instant fire. Heaters! Could be useful in winter.

Thomas also noticed that the ride was somehow smoother, perhaps because of the cart now only having three wheels. Perhaps a vehicle wasn't reliant on four wheels after all. Thomas made a mental note to give the matter of three wheels versus four some extra thought, though stability may always be a problem.

Physical stability may be overcome, but mental stability when only having three wheels may never be completely cured. There's always the feeling of being one short of a full set, if you catch my drift.

Thomas, desperately holding on to the main poles of his cart, as one by one, they finally broke free from the now flaming lashings, now headed down the bank and askew across the foreshore. A favourite haunt both for lovers, and village elders out to relieve themselves. Thomas was relieved to see only one pair of lovers in sight, and as soon as they heard the disaster rumbling towards them, arose from their patch of nuptial shingle (people were harder in those days) and fled as only lovers caught with no knickers on know how.

Just as he was thanking all the Gods of all the Heavens for all his luck in seeing no village elders, he realised, too late, that the Gods had already let him down. Village elders were there after all. Not one but two of them, the two most senior, the tribal chiefs of the whole district. Not standing at the water's edge, but crouching side by side with their backs to the beach, naked as the day they were born, and communing in a very intimate way with the outgoing tide. Thomas' cart headed straight for them as a demon chases its victims.

The victims heard the noise, but being elderly victims and a little hard of hearing, not quite so soon as the lovers. Nor could they run so quick. Only one realised something was about to happen and turned his head in time to see this huge wooden contraption hurtling and bouncing downhill towards them, breathing swathes of fire and smoke like a dragon, and disintegrating as various lengths of flaming timber broke away. All surmounted by a ferocious demon-boy, gesticulating madly and blowing his hunting horn. Thomas had realised the need for some sort of audible warning device, and in a flash of brilliant lateral thinking, reached for the hunting horn tied by leather thongs to his belt.

The elder who saw the impending disaster just had time to nudge his companion hard, who, still crouching low, fell clean over, and ducked as low as he could make himself whilst putting his hands over his head in some sort of futile gesture of self-preservation.

In a split second, the flaming cart had run them both over, launching itself into the river with a massive splash and settling on the gentle tide with a satisfying hissing and fizzling as the water converted the flaming poles and surviving lashings to steam. Thomas, to his credit, had stayed with it to the last, and found himself treading water whilst trying to hold on to the last remaining axle he could see.

"Sod it!" he exclaimed to himself. He'd have to build another one now. But his attention was momentarily diverted by the two village elders, not dead as he had expected to see, but very much alive, the cart having passed clean over them and missing both with the three remaining wheels, the pair now running naked along the foreshore, spears in hand, whooping and screaming loud enough to wake the dead.

They were never seen again, and Thomas could only presume they had departed their previously exalted and peaceful existence to join his own father somewhere deep in the forest.

One would suppose that Thomas would now be in deeper water than he was currently trying to swim in, not least for the demolition of the long-house. But not a bit of it. He was now, he found, a hero. A local hero. As has become the time-honoured way in these things, local people are rarely happy with the way their local services are administered, and the demolition of the long-house was viewed with the same delight as, say perhaps, the blowing-up of one's local guildhall might be today. A sort of Guy Fawkes effect, though that came a bit later. Thomas was honourably presented with the ruined timbers of the long-house with which to make further contraptions, or for that matter, anything he wanted. Just load them up and take them away.

Thomas' position as a local notary and worthy was now assured, and thus established the custom and practice of wealthy men groomed in the scrap and demolition business becoming big in local politics.

All the other men in the village, and most of the children, wanted one of his carts, seeing great potential in having a charging flaming monster of their own. The surviving villagers then elected him as their supreme chief, and Thomas set about recruiting enough staff to help him turn out at least one cart per day.

The wives and mothers were not quite so sure, expressing much concern amongst themselves at the prospect of weekends now ruined as husbands and fathers spent more time working on the cart than in either husbandry or fatherly duties. Allotments went untilled, the birthrate fell. And a thriving second-hand spares industry boomed.

Thomas never did cure the problem of the lashings bursting into flame, though only above a certain very low speed. He tried all sorts of different ideas, and all in vain, but we may safely credit Thomas for being the first to recognise the need for flameproof materials in all walks of life. As well as a horn, by which name all car horns are known to this day. The lashing problem was partly cured by one of Thomas' own workforce, who hit on the idea of tying two or three goatskins filled with water to each end of the cart, the idea being to pour the water onto the smouldering lashings before they ignited. That unknown and ancient fitter may be credited thus with the invention of both the automatic fire extinguisher and the forerunner of the windscreen-washer bottle all in one go.

It would be many a year before Thomas' contraption would reach its full potential and contribute to the congestion of the world's highways as well as the depletion of the ozone layer. But such things as ozone were not known about then, in Thomas' day, when the inventor of a disaster machine could be considered a hero and made a freeman of his city.




Copyright R L Haywood 1994


idea taken from an original text by Rudyard Kipling.