Professor Magnus

“He always lands on his feet.”

“That’s not true. He always lands on someone else’s feet.”

They laughed, but not as much as they would have, if it hadn’t been their own feet getting trampled by Felix’s latest enterprise. Somehow it was them who lost money when the antique shop closed down. It was them who had to pay the outstanding debt to the electric company, the gas supplier and the local business rates department at the council. It was them who had to explain to unhappy customers that they wouldn’t be getting the items they’d been promised.

Felix walked away and as usual nothing stuck to him. He’d had fun for a few of years and all without risk. He’d got other people to put in the capital, while he’d simply been employed as the manager. Remarkably, his only financial consequence from the near bankruptcy was to receive a modest redundancy payment. He was lucky the business had lasted as long as it had. If he’d allowed it to fail a month earlier he’d have been entitled to nothing.

It wasn’t his fault that covid stopped people going out and that the hike in the cost of living highlighted what was important. Antiques were not on the list for most people.

Felix had one outstanding job before he walked away. It was one of his side deals. It wouldn’t go through the books, and anyway the sale wasn’t agreed yet so he was perfectly within his rights to buy the item himself. With the redundancy payment he should have more than enough in his bank account, even after being forced to buy the shop’s van at the full market value.

The van was already loaded with his meagre assortment of personal possessions. It had a full tank of petrol thanks to his foresight in topping it up before the business closed. All he had to do now was find Prospect Farm, which was nestled in the hills above Bourton-on-the-Water.

Felix ignored his satnav and drove straight past the turning for Lower Slaughter. He was already well over an hour late so another ten minutes wouldn’t make much difference. The drive had been harder than he’d anticipated. The sun now shone in a clear blue sky but he’d passed under two sleet storms and been stuck for twenty minutes without moving while the police sorted out a lorry that had skidded across two lanes of traffic.

Bourton was a charming village with a clear stream and manicured bridges all designed to lure tourist and encourage them to loosen their purse strings. He was surprised by how busy the ice cream shop was, and speculated on what it would be like on a sunny summer afternoon. For a moment he contemplated moving into the frozen dessert business but then noticed two other ice cream parlours both of which were closed, either due to covid or because the level of trade didn’t make them sustainable.

His coffee break turned into a full three courses of refreshment and consequently it was dark by the time he set off again.

His satnav didn’t complain about taking him back to Lower Slaughter or have any problem pointing him up the steep slope to Upper Slaughter. He then followed it through a few rabbit strewn twists and turns before it confidently announced that he had arrived at his destination.

Felix was not so confident. There was no sign of a farm or any other nearby habitation. The satnav seemed to think his destination was on his left. Unless the farmer lived in a ditch it was definitely mistaken. He edged slowly forward and was surprised to discover a narrow track hiding under a fringe of dangling willow branches.

He turned left and the willow stroked the top of the van with a sound like slithering snakes. Something bigger than a rabbit shot across the lane and into the hedgerow. Some kind of bird took off from a fallen tree and with two ponderous strokes of its wings lifted into the canopy. Ice filled the twin mud-lined trenches and cracked loudly under the van’s wheels.

The lane dropped to the right, crossed a small frosted stream and bent back on itself as it ascended again. After a few more twists he came out of the woods and suddenly had a reassuring view across the sheep cropped hills to the lights of Stow-on-the-Wold.

There was a fork in the lane. One path continued around the side of the hill. The other was more like a roman road leading straight up. He thought he saw a light and felt drawn in that direction. It didn’t look too steep and the uneven frozen mud would provide good grip for the van’s tires.

The trees closed in to form a natural tunnel. A dog barked and there was his destination. Prospect farm may have had a fine view at one time but now it was surrounded by dense trees.

A light came on in the porch before he had even turned off the engine. A man shouted a greeting and quietened the dog with one simple hand gesture.

“Mr Featherington. Good to meet you. I had a nightmare journey. Sleet. Snow. Accidents. God I never thought I was going to make it.”

Mr Featherington led Felix into a warm kitchen and very quickly placed a hot mug of tea laced with whisky into his hands. Felix looked around, automatically pricing the welsh dresser, the chinaware, the solid oak table, the chairs and the old farm tools hanging on the walls. If only the shop was still open. These were exactly the pieces that still sold, and in his experience farmers never appreciated the value of items that had sat forever in their homes.

“So. You want to see the Professor?”

Felix forced himself to contain his excitement.

“I’ll just finish this very welcome cup of tea. One moment.”

The Professor had been placed on a valueless coffee table in the main lounge. Felix knew from the moment he saw it that this was his golden opportunity. As Mr Featherington brushed dust off the original clothing his eyes sparkled at the thought of how much he could make on this one deal.

“It was full of rust on the inside so I took it apart and cleaned it all up.”

“You did what?”

“Nothing much. Just stripped it all down and welded supports on where the original metal had perished.

Felix couldn’t believe what he was hearing. This imbecile could have wiped thousands off the value with his clumsy fingers.

“Wanted to show you him at his best. Shall I power him up?”

Mr Featherington didn’t wait for an answer. He placed a large iron key in a slot and wound the clockwork mechanism.

“Don’t be shy. You just place your palm there and Professor Magnus Lightfeather will tell your fortune.”

“You mean he still works?”

“He does now. I must have inherited some of my grandfathers know how. I guess it was all those hours watching him at work when I was a kid.”

Felix had forgotten that this automaton had been made by Mr Featherington’s grandfather. Somehow he couldn’t imagine a world famous engineering genius working up here in the middle of nowhere.

Felix laid his palm in front of the professor and suddenly the model sprung to life. One hand swung across and gently tapped Felix in the middle of his palm. The other hand picked up a wand which it held upright and then stopped motionless.

“It’s stuck.”

“Be patient. Professor Magnus has to consult the spirits.”

Felix could hear the clockwork mechanism still winding and see the model’s closed eye lashes quivering. Suddenly they sprung open and the model seemed to be staring intently into his eyes. A shiver ran across his back as the wand began to move.

The alphabet and numbers were painted in an arc in front of the Professor. The wand started pointing at letters with a brief pause between each word.

be honest

Felix laughed, “That’s a good one.”

The wand didn’t stop. It continued its journey around the letter board.

o r   e l s e

“That’s harsh,” said Felix. “How do you programme the words into it? I think it needs toning down.”

“You don’t,” said Mr Feathrington. “To be honest I can’t see how it works. There’s all sorts of cogs and gears but I’ve no idea how it knows what to say.”

“So. The important question is how much you want for it.”

“I don’t really know what it is worth.”

“Well,” said Felix. “In this state…”

He felt a jolt in his hand as though he’d be stabbed by a pin or given an electric shock. He quickly pulled it away and watched as the wand tapped against the number 7, the 5 and then three times on the zero.  It didn’t stop. It moved to the letters and spelled out the words fair price.

Mr Featherington laughed, “Seventy five thousand for this old thing.”

Felix noticed the wand still moving and spelling out the familiar warning, or else.

“It is possible it could sell for that in auction. Your grandfather had quite a reputation for his automaton and this one is unique. But to be honest, I just haven’t got that much money.”

Felix found himself telling Mr Featherington all about the antique shop’s problems and was surprised to find himself driving away from Prospect Farm with Professor Magnus strapped into the passenger seat and his bank account only five thousand pound lighter. It was all that Mr Featherington would accept. It was enough for a new set of tractor tires.

Felix was relieved to get out of the country lanes and back to the main road. There was no traffic so he paused to consider his options.

“So where now?” he said out loud.

The professor’s wand burst into action – to London to make things right.

Felix turned left and drove for hours through the night. He parked in front of the antique shop. He no longer had keys so tipped his chair back and slept.

He was woken by a hammering on the window.

“You’ve got a damn cheek showing your face around here.”

“No wait,” said Felix. “I’ve something to show you.”

Felix wound the professor’s clockwork mechanism and stepped back. The model came to life before either of his business partners had placed their palm in the slot. The model was much more animated. Its head moved, its arms made elaborate gestures and performed magic tricks with silk handkerchiefs before the moving wand spelt out an invitation to the palm reading. The reading itself was unlike Felix’s own encounter. The professor dished out generic words of wisdom that were easy to apply to any life experience.

“So Felix, what’s the big idea this time?”

“Don’t you see?” said Felix. “We can make enough profit on this one piece to get the shop back on its feet and this time I want to do it properly.”

“And what does that mean?”

“I’ll donate the Professor so we can be full partners – for the good times and the bad times.”

They weren’t convinced until Felix talked to a specialist auctioneer who recommended a reserve price almost double what he had anticipated. They explained that the price reflected the superb restoration work done using exactly the same techniques as the original.

Professor Magnus performed perfectly and sold for a remarkable sum.

“Well done, buddy,” said Felix as he watched the model being lifted off the sale table. Suddenly the wand shivered and moved.

take care

Felix smiled but the wand hadn’t finished.

or else.

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