Hubert was a great inventor, even though he was only in his fourth year at Evalína Saturejková Primary School. No-one in the town could actually remember who Evalína Saturejková was, but she had probably been an opera singer because when she was haunting the school at night she let out such a high-pitched scream that she shattered all the test-tubes in the chemistry lab.
The only problem was that Hubert never knew beforehand when and precisely what he would invent. So, for example, his mum would send him to the bakery to buy some rolls for breakfast, but instead of going there he’d invent a bubble-blowing clarinet, which released beautiful rainbow bubbles through the holes while you were playing it. And then another time he was supposed to be tidying his room, but instead of tidying it he made even more of a mess because he was inventing a Siamese twinspoon, forked like a snake’s tongue. The twinspoon was very practical, because if you took two sugars in your tea, as Herbert’s dad did, then the twinspoon saved you a whole extra movement.
And so on.
One beautiful day at the start of the school year, Hubert’s mum broke her hair-dryer. It was a beautiful old-fashioned blow-dryer, which his mum had inherited from her great-grandmother, who had received it as a young girl from the emperor because he had liked her beautiful long curly hair the colour of the setting sun. The exact same colour as the hair on the head of Hubert’s mum.
The hair-dryer was made of real tin with a tree-frog-green varnish. It looked like a large number 6 with a handle, there was an electric motor hidden in the belly and the hot air blew out through a stem onto wet hair. But now there was nothing blowing out of it at all.
Hubert’s mum asked him if he could try to fix the blow-dryer. It is true that it was so heavy that when she was drying her hair she felt as though a mighty eagle was resting on her arm, and that it was louder than the Victoria Falls. However, it was a family heirloom and a piece of history too, wasn’t it?
Hubert placed the antique on the desk in his room and began carefully taking it apart. First of all he had to loosen a ton of screws; only then was he able to prise open the tin casing and examine the innards of the mysterious machine. He was greeted by the sight of about a million parts of various shapes and colours, connected by kilometres of old wires wrapped in silk thread. Hubert took out all of the components and spread them out in pretty geometrical patterns alongside the disembowelled hair-dryer. He carefully examined and shook each one , but they all seemed to be in perfect working order.
So he began putting the blow-dryer back together again, but alas, he had completely forgotten where each of its components belonged. No matter which way he arranged them, there was always something left over. It was late in the evening by the time he managed to cram everything back into the tin belly. Relieved, he screwed the cover back on and went to celebrate by making a large glass of real lemonade with ice. He had pressed the juice from the lemon with the aid of another of his inventions – the juicer yoyo. All you had to do was place half a lemon into a yoyo, yank it by the cord a couple of times, and it was all over. Sometimes literally.
When he returned he took the blow-dryer, aimed it at his hamster, Harpagon, like a gun and squeezed the button on the handle. At that moment something incredible happened. Despite not having plugged the hair-dryer into the socket, it sprang to life with a menacing rumble. But instead of the air flowing out, a bright green beam flashed from the nozzle, and as soon as it struck his hamster, the animal began to get smaller and smaller until it was almost invisible.
Hubert grabbed his magnifying glass and examined the mini-hamster. Fortunately, it seemed to be OK. Harpagon happily sat up on his hind legs, looking around as usual to see what he could stuff into his cheek pouches. After about an hour, there was a strange kind of gurgling sound, like the devils make with their tongues on St Nicholas’s Day, and his hamster returned to its original size. It looked as though it hadn’t been harmed in any way by this change in dimensions.
Hubert realized that he had accidentally come up with another invention, and like a true scientist, he decided to try out what had been the hair-dryer, now the reductifier, on himself.
At that moment, Hubert’s mum came into the room and he had to get washed, clean his teeth, put on his pyjamas and go to bed.
Naturally, sleep was the furthest thing from his mind. He turned out the light in his room, but took the reductifier to bed with him. Once under the duvet, he switched on his torch, pointed the tin nozzle straight at himself, closed his eyes and pressed the button.
When he opened them again, everything looked completely different. The duvet had been transformed into an enormous black-and-white striped cave, while his torch shone from afar like some kind of underground sun. Hubert boldly clambered over the dunes and mountain ridges of the folds in the sheets, almost made it as far as his torch, but then the cave began to get smaller and changed back into his good old eiderdown.
Hubert, tired from all of his mountain climbing, or rather sheet climbing, immediately fell fast asleep and that night had one wild dream after another.
The next day after school, Hubert invited Hugo back to his place. He showed him his collection of training stamps, which at some point the postal workers had learned to put postmarks on. Next was his hamster’s self-sustaining home, lit by an electric dynamo which Harpagon personally powered with his tireless running on a wired-up wheel. And there was also his fifty-litre aquarium containing three guppies and one pirate’s chest, the treasure concealed in its depths being air which created bubbles that lifted the lid every half a minute.
He had saved the best till last. He opened a drawer, took out a stand with some kind of tube and placed it on his desk. He switched on the lamp and handed Hugo a strong magnifying glass so that he could get a good look at the thing.
“But that’s a…submarine! Actually a mini-sub,” said Hugo with surprise when he looked through the magnifying glass.
“Of course it’s a submarine, not some dry snot. I’ve been building it with tweezers here all week.”
“I’m not sure, Hubert. The reductifier is a wonderful invention, but it’s not really suitable for diving.”
“But it is, dear Hugo. You see, I don’t intend to just dive in a river or a pond, but…” At this point, Hubert left a dramatic pause, but right then the door opened and his mum appeared. She had just returned from work and had made them both fresh lemonade.
Hugo loved lemonade, and this was the most lemony of all the lemonades he had ever tasted. But he couldn’t concentrate on drinking now, even though he got a glass with a straw. He was too curious as to where his friend wanted to sail his micro-submarine. But as though on purpose, Hubert’s mum kept asking him about this and that – she must have liked him a lot. Under other circumstances Hugo would have been flattered, but now he was glad they were left alone in the room again.
“So, where was I…?” said Hugo, reeling him in like a fish, “Oh, I know! I don’t want to just dive in a river or a pond, but in the water pipes!”
“Why in the water pipes?” said Hugo, completely failing to catch on.
“Because you can go absolutely anywhere in the water pipes because they go absolutely everywhere. Even to places you can’t get to any other way. For example, to the vaults of the national bank, among the corpses in a morgue, a hangar with jet fighters, those super-secret corners of the underground railway you can’t even get access to during tours, inside a dam, or a criminal’s lair. In all those places taps are jutting out from the wall and no-one guards them. And it never rains in the pipes – OK, now I’m joking.”
“That sounds coolioso,” admitted Hugo. “But you wouldn’t catch me dead in a morgue.”
“That’s OK, we don’t have to worry about the morgue yet. I still haven’t figured out how to get the submarine into the pipes and then back out again,” confessed Hubert. “Picture this – we turn on the tap, the water’s running, then we shrink ourselves, get into the submarine – up until this point it’s been a breeze – but then how do we get the submarine into the tap?”
“Well, one person could remain unshrunk and insert the submarine with the other one on board into the tap by hand,” suggested Hugo.
“So one of us becomes a famous explorer, the master of the seven seas, while the other will just be the submarine installer. In that case, I bagsy being the explorer,” objected Hubert. “And what about at the other end of the journey? The submarine goes through the pipes to a closed tap, perfect, and what next? It’s impossible to open that gizmo from inside.”
They examined the problem from all angles, failing to notice that it was getting dark again.
They had finished all their supplies of lemonade and the sun was sinking alarmingly low, so they quickly divided their roles:
Hubert – the group’s head of science and principal engineer, master of shrinking, captain of the submarine
Hugo – chief of security, co-pilot and navigator, head swordsman and safety advisor
Ophelia – superspy, snake girl, queen of provisions, chief diver and president of the fashion police
..and then they went their separate ways home. Tomorrow was another day.
And it certainly was. The next day they met again at the tulip tree and Ophelia brought her sketchbook with the first designs for their hero overalls. The boys liked them a lot – you could see she really was a very good designer, but there was something missing.
“There’s something missing,” said Hugo.
“But what?” wondered Hubert.
“I’ll tell you what,” said Ophelia . “Our group needs a name. We have to be called something. Any gang in history that ever went places had an awesometoughsharp name.”
“You’re right,” Hubert had to agree. “For example, the Knights Templar.”
“The Templars really did go places – to the stake where they were burned,” added Hugo.
“OK, so maybe not the Templars, but what about the Argonauts?” persisted Hubert.
“And what were the Argonauts all about?”
“They were like astronauts, except instead of a spaceship they just had a ship, which they sailed across the sea in search of the Golden Fleece.”
“And what was the Golden Fleece?” pressed Hugo.
“I don’t know exactly. Something made from sheep’s wool, I think. Maybe a sweater.”
“Why would someone go all the way across the sea for a sweater?”
“Forget all this sheep hogwash,” said Ophelia , cutting short the impending argument, “and think of a name for us.”
“What about The Top-Notchers?” suggested Hugo.
“That’s awful,” said Ofélie, and Hubert nodded and then immediately shook his head as though agreeing with her disagreement.
“Well, you think up something then, seeing as you’re so clever,” snapped Hugo.
“Drops of Luck.”
“Too girly. And anyway, it should be something that goes deeper. The Water Pipers? The Subaquatics? The Watermen?” tried Hubert.
“The Water Lilies.”
“Is that a name or an opinion?”
“Shut up and listen. I’ve got it.” Ophelia clapped a hand over both their mouths. “What’s the chemical formula for water? H2O. And what are our names? Hubert – Hugo – Ophelia . If you put the first letters together, you also get H2O. So from now on our team is going to be called H2O.”
There wasn’t much to add to that. Everyone liked the name H2O and so it stuck.
The next day in school, the teachers exchanged report cards for gifts and flowers. Hurrah, the holidays had begun!
The newly formed H2O team divided up the work fairly: Hubert’s task was to increase the size of the submarine so all three of them could fit inside, and to finally finish building it. Ofélie was to sew the superhero overalls and Hugo was to find the plans for the water pipes for the whole of the town.
A week later they all met again in Hubert’s room and, over chilled glasses of homemade lemonade, boasted about what they had managed to do.
Hugo dug out a thick bundle of papers from his satchel, yellowed with age, stuffed inside a black cardboard folder. He untied the string holding the folder together and the papers expanded to twice their original volume. On the floor they spread out the large sheet of paper from the very top, revealing a carefully drawn map of the entire town’s water pipes. It looked surprisingly like the circulatory system of the human body. The central waterworks was its heart. Artery-like pipelines led from it in all directions, at first broad and straight, but then gradually branching out and narrowing into all the streets, houses and floors until finally – like blood capillaries – they brought fresh drinking water out through each tap. The used water then flowed in the opposite direction into the outflows of kitchen sinks, washbasins, baths and showers. The veins of the waste pipes joined together and became wider, until they emerged at full flow at the sewage treatment plant, where the newly cleaned water went back into the endless cycle of nature.
In the folder under the map were the distribution plans drawn out for every house, arranged alphabetically according to street name and house number.
Hubert and Ophelia’s eyes were out on stalks like four water pipes.
“Where did you dig up this treasure?”
“It took an awfully long time,” explained Hugo. “First of all, I scouted around the planning department. They advised me to find a Mr Strakykrad, who devised the whole system of pipes, or as the experts called it, the water distribution system. The only thing is that Strakykrad no longer works there, because he’s retired. And no-one knew where he lived or even if he was still alive.
So I had to go on searching. One woman who had worked with him years ago remembered that Strakykard had a strange hobby – he collected old newspapers. And not just the really old ones, like the Prague Postillion from 1783, but even the ones that were hardly old at all – maybe just a week or even less.”
It is funny that only newspapers and mayflies are old after just one day. Hugo read in one newspaper that the Association of Old Newspaper Collectors met every Thursday evening in the Golden Rotunda pub, so he went along and was fortunate enough to find Mr Strakykard there. In fact, he never went anywhere apart from the Thursday meeting of the Club of Old Newspaper Collectors. Hugo asked the engineer if he could borrow the plans for the water distribution system and he replied of course, the only problem being that Hugo would have to find them in his flat amongst all the clutter of his collection of old newspapers. He lived at no. 17 Tiskař Street and he could come for them anytime except for Thursday evening, when he never failed to attend his meeting of the Association of Old Newspaper Collectors.
Hugo knew that he wasn’t allowed to visit strangers without permission, and so he mentioned the idea to his parents. Fortunately, it turned out that his father knew that Strakykrad was a nice man as he’d had dealings with him about something at the planning department years ago, and so Hugo was free to visit him.
Hugo had never seen anything so horrible in his life. The engineer’s flat was stuffed full of old newspapers, carefully arranged into wobbly columns, stretching from floor to ceiling. The only free space was a bubble around a chair by the window, where Strakykrad sat and slept. There were only four narrow tunnels leading out from there. One towards the door, the second to the shower and the third to the toilet. The fourth and final tunnel led to the kitchen and a small one-ring cooker where Strakykrad cooked hot dogs before pouring the greasy hot water into a coffee cup. That was all the old man ate and drank – hot dogs and coffee.
Hugo was in his flat for three days, shuffling newspapers in vain from one pile to another. On the fourth day he uncovered from behind the newspapers a door to another room, which Strakykard had long since forgotten about. When they managed to open the door through their combined efforts, they saw inside the room an old woman on a rocking chair, knitting a sweater with a Norwegian pattern.
Strakykrad lovingly embraced the old woman together with the unravelling sweater, and didn’t in the least mind that her knitting needles were poking him in the chest:
“My darling Marta! I thought you had left me because of my collection of newspapers!”
“As if I’d do that, Jindřich! I’ve been waiting for you faithfully these long years.”
“Why didn’t you call for help from the window?”
“I didn’t want to cause a scene.”
“What have you been doing the whole time?”
“I knitted a sweater.”
“And when it was finished?”
“Then I unpicked it, and did it over and over again.”
Translated from the Czech by Graeme Dibble.