Blame it on Bertie

A Comedy about the inspirations of H.G. Wells

Blame it on Bertie

by Rick Kennett

It was all the fault of H.G. Wells.

Dr. Trombone Keystone, inspired and disgruntled by the ideas of H.G. Wells, makes it his life’s work to outdo the storyteller.

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Dr Trombone Keystone was inspired by H.G. Wells, it was true. But not for an instant did he think to credit that pioneer of scientific romance. In fact he rather resented old Bertie Wells’ success in fiction where he, Dr Keystone, had failed in practice. His attempts at constructing a time machine had only resulted in a lot of broken clocks, a scorched bicycle saddle and confusion as to what day it was. A little later he managed to render his head invisible, as Wells’ mad scientist Griffin had with his entire body in The Invisible Man, but it sent him blind for the duration of the experiment. Invisible retinas in invisible eyes do not absorb light.

So he turned his attention to super weaponry and pondered long on the heat ray used to great effect by the Martians in The War of the Worlds. Wells had described it somewhat vaguely as being “generated in a chamber of practically absolute non-conductivity, projected by a polished parabolic mirror of unknown composition.” After several failed attempts and one fiery explosion Dr Keystone recalled all too belatedly that Wells had warned that “terrible disasters at the Ealing and South Kensington laboratories have disinclined analysts for further investigation.” In his blackened and singed state he too was disinclined to investigate the heat ray further. Besides, he’d forgotten that the laser had already been invented.

With the vampiric plant in Wells’ “The Flowering of the Strange Orchid” Dr Keystone saw his chance to take the science of botany by storm. Sneaking into a neighbour’s green-house over a month of midnights he managed to cross-fertilize into existence a fearsome looking flower, all waving aerial tendrils with sucker ends, all spikes and intimidating petals. Then one night he found it dead and uprooted, with marks of violence upon its stripped stem. At once he suspected a mugging by the hydrangea in the next pot along, the result of an earlier and unsuccessful bit of tree surgery in the style of The Island of Dr Moreau – the cultivated air of innocence on its gynaeceum jai-nee-sium was a dead giveaway. But before he could make with the Pruning Shears of Vengeance he was chased from the green-house by his irate neighbour, woken by the doctor’s loud and woeful wailing.

Out the greenhouse and down the street he ran, past the dingy curio shop with the crystal egg in its window, past the magic shop he’d always thought was somewhere else. It was now that Dr Keystone began to wish he’d been more successful in his attempts to develop a serum to quicken his metabolism a hundred fold, as Wells had written of in “The New Accelerator.” Unfortunately it had only resulted in him speaking like a chipmunk on speed yippityyippityyippity.

Ducking through a green door in a white wall he managed to lose his pursuer.

As he leaned panting against the wall and the door in it, the thought struck him whether this might be the door in the wall, as described in Wells’ fantasy of the same name. A real door in a real wall leading to bliss and wonder, leading to beauty, heart’s desires fulfilled and immortal realities. He turned about, half hoping, half fearing to see two spotted panthers playing with a ball, the flowers of a garden in vistas stretching out to far off hills, and most of all a tall, fair girl approaching with smiles and her soft, agreeable voice. Instead all was darkness behind him. Then his foot slipped on a muddy incline and he fell in a long tumbling scream to the bottom.

Luckily he was not hurt, only disappointed the door in the wall had been a workman’s gate leading to a railway excavation. As he regained his feet he happened to glance up at the crescent moon, pale in the narrow opening of the cutting overhead – and in a thunderbolt of inspiration it occurred to him that the proper way to show up that scribbler Bertie Wells was to invent a new means of space travel.

Rockets were raucous. Rockets were fiery, dangerous and expensive. Something less showy was needed. True, Wells had got there ahead of him with The First Men in the Moon and a special substance that could screen out the pull of gravity. But, like all of Wells’ inventions, it was fiction. It was he, Dr Trombone Keystone, who would develop and perfect an actual gravity-screening substance.

Assailed by his past failures, Dr Keystone worked and worked and eventually created such a substance. Sniffing at the stuffy Victoriana of what Wells had called Cavorite, he christened his own invention with the much more up to date name of Gunk.

Needing an item to test it on he rummaged through the debris of his time machine debacle and found a buckled bicycle wheel. He coated it with Gunk, then attached the leads of an arc welder to supply the surge of electricity needed to transform the substance at a molecular level in order for it to screen out gravity itself.

He switched on the current.

The Gunk-covered bicycle wheel flashed a vivid green, jerked violently away from the leads and slammed through the skylight of his workshop as it disappeared into the starry sky of that historic evening.

Yes!” said Dr Keystone in a tone exactly one part glee, exactly one part maliciousness. Then burying all further emotion for a dozen hours he worked, painting thick layers of Gunk onto the outside of the navy surplus bathysphere he’d bought when earlier he’d thought to emulate the deep-sea explorer of Wells’ “In the Abyss” but had then thought better of it when he recalled that explorer’s abysmal fate. Now it would serve a different purpose and carry him triumphantly in a different direction.

At six o’clock that morning, Dr Trombone Keystone, long-time failure and now inventor of Gunk, put down his paintbrush, cranked open the skylight with its smashed glass panes, and climbed into the bathysphere.

He closed the hatch and flicked the electrical switch.

It would work. He knew it would work.

Indeed it did work. Altered by the electrons of the electric current the Gunk flashed a vivid green and effectively screened out Earth’s gravity, isolating the bathysphere in space.

But because the Earth orbits the sun counterclockwise and because it was now six o’clock in the morning instead of six o’clock in the evening, Dr Keystone never had a chance to yell, “Up yours, Bertie!” before the workshop floor collided with the bathysphere at nearly thirty kilometres per second.

In the days that followed, those who viewed the resulting crater, enormous and perfectly circular as if caused by something impacting from space, shook their heads in wonder.

It’s like a science fiction,” they marvelled. “That’s what it is! A regular H.G. Wells!”

And sometimes, as if in answer to these sentiments, there’d be a hollow groan from the depths of the crater, like sounds of frustration emanating from an exasperated and inexperienced ghost.

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