The Friday Fillip: Trial and Failure

After many hundreds of Friday Fillips, I’m going to try something different in this space. For the next while I’m going to do a “Boz” and publish a crime novel in episodes. Those of you who read the Fillip for leads to “interesting stuff” I’ve found on the internet needn’t fear: I’ll lift a theme out of each episode and interpolate notes on fresh findings that touch on that theme. I’m also going to gather the accumulating episodes on another website, so that people coming late to the Fillip can catch up with the story. My aim is to offer up an episode every week for, as I say, a while. But the muse may occasionally balk, and so I reserve the right to skip the odd week and revert to the more traditional free-form Fillip.


Chapter 1
Trial and Failure

“Tittlebat,” she said, pulling on a dirty leather glove.

“Come again?” Wallace Mitman was busy wadding up a piece of Wonder Bread.

Gregoria Rangel held the tiny fish in her gloved left hand and worked to get the outsized hook fromstickleback its mouth. She thrust hook, fish, and hands in his direction to show him. “Three-spined stickleback, tiddler, Gasterosteus aculeatus.” And with that she placed the freed animal back in the water and watched until, after a frozen moment, it twitched down and out of sight.

“Think anything will hit on this?” Mitman asked, holding up something that looked rather like a Christmas tree ornament made in junior kindergarten but was in fact a dough ball hiding a hook.

“Don’t ask me?” Rangel said. She had taken off the glove and was looking around for something to wipe her hands on. She settled for a rag she’d found at the bottom of the boat, swapping slime for grease.

“Well, you were all gastro-whatever and tittybat, so I figured you for the compleat angler.”

“I’ve read the book,” said Rangel.

“Why am I not surprised?”

Rangel looked around her. She saw smooth lake, ranks of reeds to her left that marched out from the shore until the water rose over their knees, a fortress of ancient rock and conifers on the opposite shore fifty metres away, and dead ahead the Castle of Far Off Ease, the lodge where they were staying, tiny in what she thought Dante had once called a “giddy distance.” No wind fussed the surface of the lake, and the small aluminum craft rocked gently with their every movement, no matter how slight. It felt to her as though everything was in suspension, precariously so. “Wally,” she said in an abstracted way. “Let’s go back. I’ve had enough. I want a scotch.”

“G.R.,” said Mitman, “I thought you’d never ask,” and he grabbed the outboard starter handle, fired the motor up, and swung the boat around.

For a moment, the dinghy attempted to rise and plane on the surface, but then it lost courage and sank back to plough the lake instead. The snarling noise from the motor made conversation difficult, so Rangel leaned forward, hands on the gunwales at the prow, looking like some figurehead, Mitman thought — or, he corrected himself with a smile — a dog with its happy head out of a car’s window. Not that she was in any sense a dog. He reckoned her beauty as only one of her many stellar qualities. But there was an eagerness in her face that he was glad to see. Perhaps this retreat had been a good idea after all.

And then with a loud humming and a backfire like a gunshot, the outboard motor quit. Rangel looked around with alarm. “What?” she said.

“It stopped,” Mitman said, pointing at the outboard.

“I can see that. Can you fix it?”

Mitman frowned. “Me? What I know from motors you could stick in a . . . stickleback.”

“But you’re the computer genius.”

“Computers aren’t motors. They’re not even machines. Not really. They transcend that category. They’re — “



“Shut up.”

An evening breeze was gathering itself. And to Rangel’s eye, the lodge was still infinitely far away. She figured half an hour until sunset and then maybe twenty minutes of useful dusk. She saw Mitman making the same calculation. They looked at each other.


Mitman muttered, “It’s probably fouled.” And after pulling this and pushing that he managed to rotate the motor out of the water. Sure enough, a Medusa of weeds strangled the prop. Mitman leaned out carefully and began to strip the vegetation away.

“Tapegrass,” Rangel said, leaning over his shoulder. “Um . . . Vallisneria spiralis or, if you accept some authorities, Vallisneria tortissima because this has twisty — “


“Yes. I know. Shut up.”

The outboard’s tail went back in the water. Mitman worked the starter pull. Nothing. Not a sputter, not a cough. Nothing. “Shit,” he announced.

“Let it rest for a bit?”

They both gazed at the disappearing sun. After an unmeasured while, Mitman gripped the starter handle and, with his left hand on the motor housing, drew the rope out until he felt resistance. He glanced back at Rangel — and gave a swift pull. Nada.

Again. Zip.


Somehow it had become dusk. “Those stick things,” said Mitman, pointing to a pair of emergency oars strapped to the sides of the boat. “It’s time for the stick things.”

“We’ll take turns,” said Rangel, trying for brightness.

“Damn right,” said Mitman, as he struggled to fit the stick things into the oarlocks. He found a rib in the floor to brace his heels against and began to row. They switched twice and the scotch got closer. Mitman was rowing when the light failed. Rangel leaning forward in the prow imagined she could still make things out, though she knew she couldn’t. But ahead of her shone the white light at the end of the dock at the lodge. And reason told her that there were no obstacles between them and the light. Only water. So if they kept the boat pointed at the light they’d eventually bang into dry land, armchairs, and stiff drinks.

The dock light went out.

“Oh no!” Rangel cried.

“What?” Mitman stopped rowing and swivelled round. “Oh no,” he agreed.

“Quick, put the oars in. Stop us turning.” Mitman did as he was told. “Can you row straight?” Rangel asked.

“Honey, I can’t even be straight,” Mitman said. He was sounding tired.

“Moon, is there a moon?” said Rangel, and they both looked up into the black sky, as if searching for an elusive comet. “There’s always a moon, isn’t there?”

“I think there’s something coming up over there,” said Mitman, pointing invisibly in the dark.

“Stars. There’s lots of stars up here, right? More coming out every minute. Starlight’s pretty bright. Isn’t it?”

“Whoah!” Mitman reached out, found her shoulder, and tapped it. “Or should I say ‘Avast!’?” Rangel turned and turned until she saw it too: a small light making a small circle in the distance.

“Row, damn you, row,” she said with excitement. “A little more to the left. My left. That’s port.”

“It better be,” said Mitman.


“It’s my pride and joy.” Dennis Abudo was certainly beaming. “It’s designed for just such an occasion as this, when the power fails. Which it does with some frequency out here in the boondocks.” His accent made the word sound appealing. “Somebody once told me it was because porcupines eat through the cables. But I’ve observed that people in the country will tell all manner of nonsense to foreigners.”

“It’s just a generator,” Rangel said. She had her coveted whisky in hand, an angora sweater around her shoulders, and was feeling cocky. “Everybody has generators.”

“Ah ha!” said Abudo. “This, my dear lady, is a Stirling engine generator and not everybody has a Stirling engine generator, believe me. Well, not everybody here. There are a few back home in Mozambique. But not here. Here it is ave rara.”

“Not you, too,” said Mitman. His scotch was a martini. Only the olive remained in the glass and he was toying with it, making it spin around the glass in varying orbits.

Abudo looked at him quizzically. “It’s Portuguese,” he said, “for a rare bird. Something uncommon. Sometimes I forget and speak Portuguese.”

Mitman ate the olive. “Sorry, my mistake,” he said. “What makes it fly, this bird, then?”

“Simple and complicated both to explain. Mr. Stirling came up with the idea in 1816 but it was a social failure. Steam engines and then gasoline engines eclipsed his invention. But here it is two centuries later, coming back to life. The beauty is that a Stirling engine does work if you give it any heat and any cooling. The heat of a hand and the coolness of the air could make a Stirling engine go. The engine contains trapped gas that is alternately heated and cooled by these outside sources, moving a piston inside that is linked to some external machine, in this case a generator. Of course, the heat of a hand wouldn’t result in the generation of much power. But this beauty is heated by natural gas, or propane if need be, and to some extent by solar power in the summer. Cooling is courtesy of the lake water.”

The NYTimes recently published a “Brief History of Failure,” setting out something like 20 inventions that were ahead of their time and, so, flopped. The Stirling engine is among these. For a current illustration of the sort of Stirling generator described in the story, see this (and 7 other) videos by Dean Kamen, inventor of the Segway (a man who does like to talk).

“Like a refrigerator compressor only worked backwards,” said Mitman.

“Exactly!” Abudo clapped him on the back. “Only this is much, much more efficient. Nothing is wasted.”

“Neither am I,” said Mitman, “and I’d like to be.” He raised his empty martini glass. “We’ve just survived a hair-raising adventure on the high seas, and I’m still shaky on my pins.”

Rangel followed them up the stairs to the main floor. “Thank God you came down to the dock with that flashlight when you did,” she said, “or we’d have been in sleeping in the weeds tonight.”

“I had to make sure you got home because I was counting on you both to provide dinner.” Abudo smiled.

“Fail whale,” said Mitman.

They took their refreshed drinks outside while Abudo supervised matters in the kitchen. They sat in a pair of Muskoka chairs and leaned back to see that the stars were indeed out in force. After a while, Rangel said in the dark, “I can’t pay you, Wally. This month, of course. But after that . . . “

“Business will pick up,” Mitman told the stars. “I’m not bothered.”

“It won’t,” Rangel said. “They hate me. The whole town hates me.”

“They don’t.”

“They do. I defended Doctor Evil, Doctor Disgusting and that damns me forever in their eyes.”

Mitman sighed. “You didn’t get him off, though. There is that.”

“Somehow that only makes it worse. On top of it all I was incompetent. I should have been able to persuade the judge that — Oh, hell — .“ And Mitman thought he heard her crying.

He said, “Do you see that boxy sort of construction? I think it’s north-ish. Your north-ish. I do believe that’s the big dipper, or, as some people I know might say, Ursa major. It’s hard to be sure, what with all the millions of other stars cluttering things up the way they do. I mean, just look at that huge smear of light things. Goes all the way across, practically.” Rangel blew her nose loudly. “Some people, city people, never ever get to see this. Never. Can you imagine that? Living on grids without messy light things at night. No, this is the life for me. Hey ho. And it’s the life for you, too, boss. Besides, money is vastly overrated. Did I say ‘vastly’? Often overrated. Sometimes.”

Abudo had come up behind them in the dark and he coughed discreetly. “May I take you in to join the others for a candlelight dinner?” he asked. “Only I must tell you that the soufflé has fallen and the cook is terribly distressed. Please accept my apology on her behalf.”

There was fish for dinner, a perfect pickerel to follow the deflated and delicious cheese soufflé. Abudo himself brought dessert to the table along with a worried look. “Ms. Rangel,” he said, “there is a telephone call for you.” Rangel and Mitman looked at each other, frowning in puzzlement. There was a moment of confusion. Rangel reached for her cell phone and then remembered that she didn’t have it because they were out of range here. That had been the point, in fact. “No one knows where I am,” she said.

Abudo sighed. He said, “I am terribly sorry but I fear there has been a fire.”


© Simon Fodden


  1. fascinating and fun! Thanks for flipping the fillip (not to say the fish) a bit for us, it’ll keep us fresh. Good luck with your Muse!