My great-uncle Dominic, the inventor, took me into the small workshop that stood between the back of his house and the large kitchen garden behind it. “This will amuse you,” he said, pointing to a box-shaped contraption with what looked like a headlamp encased in it. “It’s called a stroboscope. They are going to become very popular.” He switched on an electric drill, and brought it into the flashing, acetylene-blue light of the contraption. With his free hand he adjusted the frequency of the flashing, and I watched, enchanted, as the drill-bit ap-peared to slow gradually down to a complete halt. “There, you see,” he said, “it renders the most violent things harmless. Touch the drill, go on . . . ”
Such was his solicitude, however, that before I had raised my small hand a fraction, he clutched it with his own. “Now let this serve as a lesson to you. Watch . . .” He brought a piece of wood from the workbench to the motionless drill-bit. A harsh rasping came as the one contacted the other, a flashlit spray of sawdust plumed out in a staggered curve, and in a trice the innocent piece of metal had bitten clean through the inch-thick piece of wood. “There you are. If something looks peaceful then leave it alone or else you get crucified. The stroboscope makes machines look still because it only illuminates one point in their cycle. Terrible accidents happen in factories where they have flickering neon lights . . . Now I must go and have a nap before Inge and I go out.”
Uncle Dominic was a man of extraordinary mildness. Family legend has it that his only retort to the irresponsible nurse in whose charge his son drowned forty-five years ago was, “If this sort of thing happens again you’ll have to go.” He made his fortune when the patent for a guidance device he had invented was purchased by an aeronautical company, which then adapted it for use in naval missiles. After the war he calculated that he had been instrumental in the deaths of some twenty thousand people. The fact haunted him. He wrote countless letters to the press warning scientists to guard their discoveries from the military, and was much ridiculed for them. In an oddly inverted piece of folie de grandeur., he papered his workshop with the dead and wounded of Hiroshima, as if he had been personally responsible for the carnage. The projects he worked on became increasingly trifling, as his concern over their possible abuse grew more obsessive. that winter be had perfected a machine for feeding minced chicken, at twelve-hourly intervals, to Salome, his beloved Persian Blue, so that he and his second wife Inge could take short holidays without troubling the neighbors to look after the animal.
He had also built the prototype of a hair-plaiting device for Inge, and as we returned from the cold workshop to the warm house, we beard Inge shouting from the bedroom upstairs—“Come and get this wretched machine out of my hair. It’s stuck—” Uncle Dominic quickened bis pace, then checked himself. “I mustn’t run,” be said to me, “you go and belp her.”
Inge, twenty-six years my great-uncle’s junior, sat at her dressing table in a blue silk peignoir embroidered with tiny brigbt bumming birds, the plaiting device sticking incongruously from her long golden hair. “Ah. Little Thomas,” she said, “bow sweet you are . . . ” I stood behind her disentangling the golden strands from the silver tines of the device as gently as I could. “None of bis machines work these days,” she whispered, as Uncle Dominic’s footsteps approached the door.
He fell instantly asleep on the bed, while Inge bad me brush her hair with her soft, ivory-bandied hairbrush, and plait it with my own bands. I can remember wanting to tell her bow lovely I thought she was, but having the courage only to let my all-licensed bands linger in that gleaming floss some moments longer than were necessary. she coiled the braid into a bun, and fixed it with two tourmaline pins. “Now go,” she said, “while I dress,” and kissed me on my forehead.