Read The Iron Man Online

Authors: Ted Hughes

The Iron Man (2 page)

BOOK: The Iron Man
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When the farmers saw the Iron Man wallowing in their deep pit, they sent up a great cheer. He glared up towards them, his eyes burned from red to purple, from purple to white, from white to fiery whirling black and red, and the cogs inside him ground and screeched, but he could not climb out of the steep-sided pit.

Then under the lights of car headlamps, the farmers brought bulldozers and earth-pushers, and they began to push in on top of the struggling Iron Man all the earth they had dug when they first made the pit and that had been piled off to one side.

The Iron Man roared again as the earth began to fall on him. But soon he roared no more. Soon the pit was full of earth. Soon the Iron Man was buried silent, packed down under all the soil, while the farmers piled the earth over him in a mound and in a hill. They went to and fro over the mound on their new tractors, which they’d bought since the Iron Man ate their old ones, and they packed the earth 
down hard. Then they all went home talking
cheerfully
. They were sure they had seen the last of the Iron Man.

Only Hogarth felt suddenly sorry. He felt guilty. It was he, after all, who had lured the Iron Man into the pit.

 

So the Spring came round the following year, leaves unfurled from the buds, daffodils speared up from the soil, and everywhere the grass shook new green points. The round hill over the Iron Man was
covered
with new grass. Before the end of the summer, sheep were grazing on the fine grass on the lovely hillock. People who had never heard of the Iron Man saw the green hill as they drove past on their way to the sea, and they said: “What a lovely hill!
What a perfect place for a picnic!”

So people began to picnic on top of the hill. Soon, quite a path was worn up there, by people climbing to eat their sandwiches and take snaps of each other.

One day, a father, a mother, a little boy and a little girl stopped their car and climbed the hill for a picnic. They had never heard of the Iron Man and they thought the hill had been there for ever.

They spread a tablecloth on the grass. They set down the plate of sandwiches, a big pie, a roasted chicken, a bottle of milk, a bowl of tomatoes, a
bagful
of boiled eggs, a dish of butter and a loaf of bread, with cheese and salt and cups. The father got his stove going to boil some water for tea, and they all lay back on rugs munching food and waiting for the kettle to boil, under the blue sky.

Suddenly the father said: “That's funny!”

“What is?” asked the mother.

“I felt the ground shake,” the father said. “Here, right beneath us.”

“Probably an earthquake in Japan,” said the mother.

“An earthquake in Japan?” cried the little boy. “How could that be?”

So the father began to explain how an earthquake
in a far distant country, that shakes down buildings and empties lakes, sends a jolt right around the earth. People far away in other countries feel it as nothing more than a slight trembling of the ground. An earthquake that knocks a city flat in South America, might do no more than shake a picture off a wall in Poland. But as the father was talking, the mother gave a little gasp, then a yelp.

“The chicken!” she cried. “The cheese! The
tomatoes
!”

Everybody sat up. The tablecloth was sagging in the middle. As they watched the sag got deeper and all the food fell into it, dragging the tablecloth right down into the ground. The ground underneath was splitting and the tablecloth, as they watched, slowly folded and disappeared into the crack, and they were left staring at a jagged black crack in the ground. The crack grew, it widened, it lengthened, it ran between them. The mother and the girl were on one side, and the father and the boy were on the other side. The little stove toppled into the growing crack with a clatter and the kettle disappeared.

They could not believe their eyes. They stared at the widening crack. Then, as they watched, an
enormous
iron hand came up through the crack, groping
around in the air, feeling over the grass on either side of the crack. It nearly touched the little boy, and he rolled over backwards. The mother screamed. “Run to the car,” shouted the father. They all ran. They jumped into the car. They drove. They did not look back.

So they did not see the great iron head, square like a bedroom, with red glaring headlamp eyes, and with the tablecloth, still with the chicken and the cheese, draped across the top of it, rising out of the top of the hillock, as the Iron Man freed himself
from the pit.

When the farmers realized that the Iron Man had freed himself they groaned. What could they do now? They decided to call the Army, who could pound him to bits with anti-tank guns. But Hogarth had another idea. At first, the farmers would not hear of it, least of all his own father. But at last they agreed. Yes, they would give Hogarth's idea a trial. And if it failed, they would call in the Army.

After spending a night and a day eating all the barbed wire for miles around, as well as hinges he tore off gates and the tin cans he found in ditches, and three new tractors and two cars and a lorry, the Iron Man was resting in a clump of elm trees. There he stood, leaning among the huge branches, almost hidden by the dense leaves, his eyes glowing a soft blue.

The farmers came near, along a lane, in cars so that they could make a quick getaway if things went wrong. They stopped fifty yards from the clump of elm trees. He really was a monster. This was the first time most of them had had a good look at him. His chest was as big as a cattle truck. His arms were like cranes, and he was getting rusty, probably from
eating
all the old barbed wire.

Now Hogarth walked up towards the Iron Man.

“Hello,” he shouted, and stopped. “Hello, Mr Iron Man.”

The Iron Man made no move. His eyes did not change.

Then Hogarth picked up a rusty old horseshoe, and knocked it against a stone: Clonk, Clonk, Clonk!

At once, the Iron Man's eyes turned darker blue. Then purple. Then red. And finally white, like a car headlamps. It was the only sign he gave of having heard.

“Mr Iron Man,” shouted Hogarth. “We've got all the iron you want, all the food you want, and you can have it for nothing, if only you'll stop eating up the farms.”

The Iron Man stood up straight. Slowly he turned, till he was looking directly at Hogarth.

“We're sorry we trapped you and buried you,” shouted the little boy. “We promise we'll not deceive you again. Follow us and you can have all the metal you want. Brass too. Aluminium too. And lots of old chrome. Follow us.”

The Iron Man pushed aside the boughs and came into the lane. Hogarth joined the farmers. Slowly
they drove back down the lane, and slowly, with all his cogs humming, the Iron Man stepped after them.

They led through the villages. Half the people came out to stare, half ran to shut themselves inside bedrooms and kitchens. Nobody could believe their eyes when they saw the Iron Man marching behind the farmers.

At last they came to the town, and there was a great scrap-metal yard. Everything was there, old cars by the hundred, old trucks, old railway engines, old stoves, old refrigerators, old springs, bedsteads, bicycles, girders, gates, pans – all the scrap iron of the region was piled up there, rusting away.

“There,” cried Hogarth. “Eat all you can.”

The Iron Man gazed, and his eyes turned red. He kneeled down in the yard, he stretched out on one elbow. He picked up a greasy black stove and chewed it like a toffee. There were delicious crumbs of chrome on it. He followed that with a
double-decker
bedstead and the brass knobs made his eyes crackle with joy. Never before had the Iron Man eaten such delicacies. As he lay there, a big truck turned into the yard and unloaded a pile of rusty chain. The Iron Man lifted a handful and let it
dangle into his mouth – better than any spaghetti.

So there they left him. It was an Iron Man's heaven. The farmers went back to their farms. Hogarth visited the Iron Man every few days. Now the Iron Man's eyes were constantly a happy blue. He was no longer rusty. His body gleamed blue, like a new gun barrel. And he ate, ate, ate, ate – endlessly.

 

One day there came strange news. Everybody was talking about it. Round eyes, busy mouths,
frightened
voices – everybody was talking about it.

One of the stars of the night sky had begun to change. This star had always been a very tiny star, of no importance at all. It had shone up there for billions and trillions and sillions of years in the Constellation of Orion, that great shape of the giant hunter that strides across space on autumn and
winter nights. In all its time this tiny star had never changed in any way.

Now, suddenly, it began to get bigger.

Astronomers, peering through their telescopes, noticed it first. They watched it with worried frowns.

That tiny star was definitely getting bigger. And not just bigger. But bigger and Bigger and BIGger. Each night it was BIGGER.

Bigger than the Dog-star, the large, coloured twinkler at the heel of the Hunter Orion.

Bigger than Jupiter, the great blazing planet.

Everybody could see it clearly, night after night, as it grew and Grew and GREW. They stared up with frightened faces.

Till at last it hung there in the sky over the world, blazing down, the size of the moon, a deep, gloomy red. And now there could be only one explanation. That star was getting bigger because it was getting nearer. And nearer and NEARer and NEARER.

It was rushing towards the world.

Faster than a bullet.

Faster than any rocket.

Faster even than a meteorite.

And if it hit the world at that speed, why, the whole world would simply be blasted to bits in the twinkling of an eye. It would be like an Express train hitting a bowl of goldfish.

No wonder the people stared up with frightened faces. No wonder the astronomers watched it through their telescopes with worried frowns.

But all of a sudden – a strange thing!

The star seemed to have stopped.

There it hung, a deep and gloomy red, just the size of the moon. It got no smaller. It got no bigger. It wasn’t coming any nearer. But it wasn’t going away either.

Now everybody tried to explain why and how this was. What had happened? What was
happening
? What was going to happen?

And now it was that the next strange thing occurred – the astronomers noticed it first.

In the middle of the giant star, a tiny black speck had appeared. On the second night this speck was seen to be wriggling, and much bigger. On the third night, you could see it without a telescope. A
struggling
black speck in the centre of that giant, red, gloomy star.

On the fifth night, the astronomers saw that it seemed to be either a bat, or a black angel, or a flying lizard – a dreadful silhouette, flying out of the centre of that giant star, straight towards the earth. What was coming out of the giant star?

Each night, when the astronomers returned to their telescopes to peer up, this black flying horror was bigger. With slow, gigantic wing-beats, with long, slow writhings of its body, it was coming down through space, outlined black against its red star.

Within a few more nights, its shape had
completely
blotted out the red star. The nameless, immense bat-angel was flying down at the earth, like a great black swan. It was definitely coming straight at the earth.

It took several days to cover the distance.

Then, for one awful night, its wings seemed to be filling most of the sky. The moon peered fearfully from low on the skyline and all the people of earth stayed up, gazing in fear at the huge black
movement
of wings that filled the night.

Next morning it landed – on Australia.

Barrrump!

The shock of its landing rolled round the earth
like an earthquake, spilling teacups in London,
jolting
pictures off walls in California, cracking statues off their pedestals in Russia.

The thing had actually landed – and it was a
terrific
dragon.

Terribly black, terribly scaly,
terribly
knobbly, terribly horned, terribly hairy, terribly clawed, terribly fanged, with vast indescribably terrible eyes, each one as big as Switzerland. There it sat, covering the whole of Australia, its tail trailing away over Tasmania into the sea, its foreclaws on the
headlands
of the Gulf of Carpentaria. Luckily, the mountains and hills propped its belly up clear of the valleys, and the Australians could still move about in the pitch darkness, under this new sky, this low queer covering, of scales. They crowded towards the light that came in along its sides. Of course,
whoever
had been on a mountain-top when the dragon landed had been squashed flat. Nothing could be done about them. And there the horror sat, glaring out over the countries of the world.

What had it come for? What was going to
happen
to the world now this monstrosity had arrived?

Everybody waited. The newspapers spoke about
nothing else. Aircraft flew near this space-bat-
angel-dragon
, taking photographs. It lay over Australia higher than any mountains, higher than the Hindu Kush in Asia, and its head alone was the size of Italy.

For a whole day, while the people of the earth trembled and wept and prayed to God to save them, the space-bat-angel-dragon lay resting, its chin sunk in the Indian Ocean, the sea coming not quite up to its bottom lip.

But the next morning, early, its giant voice came rumbling round the world. The space-bat-
angel-dragon
was speaking. It wanted to be fed. And what it wanted to eat was – living things. People, animals, forests, it didn’t care which, so long as the food was alive. But it had better be fed quickly, otherwise it would roll out its tongue longer than the
Trans-Siberian
railway, and lick huge swathes of life off the surface of the earth – cities, forests, farmlands, whatever there was. It would leave the world
looking
like a charred pebble – unless it were fed and fed quickly.

Its voice shook and rumbled around the earth for a whole hour as it delivered its message. Finally it ended, and lay waiting.

The peoples of the world got together. If they fed it, how could they ever satisfy it? It would never be full, and every new day it would be as hungry as ever. How can you feed a beast the size of Australia? Australia is a vast land, all the countries of Europe will fit easily into Australia. The monster’s stomach alone must be the size of Germany.

No, they would not feed it. The people of the world decided they would not feed this space-
bat-angel
-dragon or whatever it was – they would fight it. They would declare war on it, and all get together to blast it off the face of the earth. And so it was that all the peoples of earth declared war on the monster, and sent out their armed forces in a grand combined operation.

What a terrific attack!

Rockets, projectiles of all sorts, missiles and bombs, shells and flame-throwers – everything was tried. The smoke of the explosions drifted out over the Pacific like a black, crawling continent. The noise of the battle shook the world almost as much as the landing of the dragon had done, and for much longer.

Then the noise died down and the smoke cleared. And the peoples of the world cried in dismay. The dragon was actually smiling. Smiling! Aircraft flying daringly near photographed the vast face smiling, and the picture was in all the papers.

It was smiling as if it had been well tickled.

Now the peoples of the world were worried. They were all great fighters. All spent their spare money on preparing for wars, always making bigger and better weapons, and now they had all tried their
utmost to blast this thing off the earth, and what was the result?

The dragon merely smiled, and not a scratch could be seen anywhere on its body.

Human weapons had no effect on it.

But that wasn’t surprising. This creature had come from the depths of space, out of the heart of a star. Nobody knew what it was made of. Perhaps it could not be destroyed by any means whatsoever.

And now the space-bat-angel-dragon spoke again.

It gave the peoples of the world one week in which to prepare its first meal. They could prepare what they liked, said the dragon. But if the meal was not ready in a week, then he would start on the cities and the towns.

The peoples of the earth, the kings, the Presidents and Ministers, the farmers and the factory workers and the office workers began to lament. Now what would happen to them? They would like to say the monster didn’t exist, but how could they? There it was, covering Australia, staring out over all the countries of the world.

Now the little boy Hogarth heard all about this.
Everybody in the world was talking about it,
worrying
about it.

He was sure the Iron Man could do something. Compared to the space-bat-angel-dragon the Iron Man wasn’t very big, of course. The Iron Man was only the size of a tall tree. Nevertheless, Hogarth had faith in the Iron Man.

He visited the Iron Man in his scrap-yard, and talked to him about this great monster that was threatening the earth.

“Please,” he asked, “please can’t you think of some way of getting rid of it? If you can’t, then it’s the end of us all.”

The Iron Man chewed thoughtfully at his favourite titbit, a juicy, spicy old gas-stove. He shook his head slowly.

“Please think of something,” cried Hogarth. “If this space-bat-angel-dragon licks all life off the earth, that’ll be the end of your scrap iron – there’ll be no people left to make it.”

The Iron Man became still. He seemed to be thinking. Suddenly his headlamps blazed red, green, blue and white all at once. And he stood up. In a great grinding voice, he gave his commands.
Hogarth danced for joy. The Iron Man had had the most stupendous idea. The Iron Man would go out, as the champion of the earth, against this monster from space.

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