Friday, April 08, 2005

The Age of Steam

The Age of Steam

Christmas came once again, and this year I received a Mamod steam engine from my parents. A real, minature steam engine which ran on a meths burner. All the working bits were Meccano-compatible, the idea being that the junior engineer would build something in the traditional stylee and watch it spin round at a sedate speed under the power of scaldingly hot high pressure steam. And I'd asked for it too. The AK-47 would have to wait another year, though.

You could use it, like a tiny Fred Dibnah, to power machinery that you'd built out of lego and my specially sharpened mecanno set. Fairground ride replicas, replica agricultural equipment, funny looking robots, and, with the help of some smuggled kitchen goods, something deadly with rotating knives, that might come in handy if I were either very, very hungry, or got a work experience gig at the local slaughter house. What could possibly go wrong?

It was, in retrospect, an incredibly sad hobby, and this was proven when Geoff and I raised a magnificent 60p displaying our creations at the school Christmas Fayre, a disaster which became known as The Year We Didn't Make a Fortune. The only good thing to come from the experience was the pleasure of having both flammable liquids and the means to burn them on school property. The scorch marks are probably still there.

As it stands, that wasn't the best of years, as my continued possession of an Ian Allen Train Spotters' Almanac for 1979 proves.There may have been a pair of tartan flares involved at some stage, come to think of it.

My sister, who, for some reason doesn't appear often enough in these stories (and heaven knows I'm still physically and mentally scarred by her attempts to kill me) was the one chosen by the Gods of Mirth and Woe to spoil my innocent fun. And all I did was take the piss out of her saxophone playing. Easy mistake to make. I thought she was strangling the dog.

In a typical fit of old sister pique, she stole a vital part of my treasured Mamod, thus denying me the pleasure of raising steam (when I should, at that age, have been trying to raise something else). Financially challenged as I was, I couldn't afford to go up to the Mecanno shop to buy an new high-pressure valve, so I did was any member of the Round Table would do in the circumstances - Adopt, Adapt, Improve. Or failing that, just bodge something up.

I found a small, blue plastic peg out of a Christmas-cracker solitaire set. Proper job.

In the absence of the valve, I filled the tank with water, and pushed the peg home with a couple of twists. Perfect fit.

Steam! In went the little meths burner, and before long, the little flywheel was spinning round like a mad little bugger as my prototype rotating knives machine struggled into life.

Steam! White hot, high pressure steam! Bursting to get out of a high-pressure boiler in any which way it could!

BOOOMPHWOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOSH! the peg shot out of the hole like a very fast thing that doesn't quite stand up to a bullet/gun analogy, closely followed by a jet of scalding, pressurised steam.

BOOOMPHWOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOSH! went my bottom by way of reply, closely followed by... let's not go there. Perhaps it's best to say that I narrowly avoided permanent disfigurement in the trouser department.

The steam engine bucked around angrily, and the rotating knives machine took on a life of its own, helterskeltering round the garden and causing terminal damage to a herbaceous border that was going to take some explaining.

Quaking with fear, I looked up at the kitchen window to see if anyone had witnessed by moment of woe.


"Yak," she said, her single-syllable of derision that would haunt me for years to come, more than any bodily scar. "Yak."

Never rile a saxophonist. They're evil.

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