"From the machine."
"Oh. I'm going to the bathroom first."
"I loved that last part, with 'Quetzal'," I said, picking up the base of the bracket, running my fingers over the ribs and connecting flange.
I took the pieces down into town the next morning. I knew there was a shop at the end of Chancellor Street with a sign that said "Electrician - Heating Engineer - Plumber" and a window full of bits and pieces of copper wire, plastic tube, and fading flyblown advertisements featuring smiling blonde women with triangular faces in front of gleaming domestic appliances. It was worth a try.
The space between the door and the counter was crammed with bulky cardboard boxes. I wove my way between them and rested my briefcase on the dusty formica top. Nobody around. I tapped my foot and a bundle of fluorescent tubes shifted, threatened to fall, but settled again before I could reach out to stop them.
Faint music came from the open doorway behind the counter. Then I heard a hoarse male voice.
"F--- mithering me again ... yeah ... yeah .. the
corkscrew one. Hah! (a tone of pure derision). OK, fine ... no, Hartlepool. Tuesday. right? right ... Struggling b---," he continued, coming into the shop and wiping his hands on a filthy rag.
"All right?" he asked me.
"I wondered if you had one of these, by any chance," I said, taking a small-size sandwich bag out of my case. He opened it and extracted the bits of bracket.
"What's it off?"
I told him.
"They don't make 'em no more."
"I know, I just wondered..."
"No, an E700."
"With reciprocating motion?"
"Right." He turned the pieces over. "See, you can't stick these. It was their own formula. Some of the earliest injection moulding. And once it goes, your mother cylinder is completely free. All right for a while, but then ...."
"It's going fine at the moment. Just a bit noisy."
"Oh, it will, it will. They were good machines. Fatal flaw, though. Some of them last a lifetime, others ..." he pursed his lips and fell silent.
"They sold out," he continued after a while. "K---s or J---s or suchlike. Bought 'em up, closed 'em down. How did you get one, anyway?"
"It was left to us," I said, "family, you know."
"Not many people these days," he said, "no demand. You can't blame them. Should be in a museum really. How's the output?"
"No complaints," I said. "A little low in winter, but considering the age - well, it's all right for us."
"See, we could do you a new package, less than a grand, including installation?" He didn't look very optimistic. He coughed and some dust lifted off the counter.
"No thanks all the same," I said. "I'll see if I can fix it."
"Take care," he said. "Let us know how you go on."
What did he say that for? Did he expect me to call in with regular bulletins? Anyway he had wandered back through the doorway and I replaced the bracket in my case and left.
What do people round here think of me, I wonder? Here I am, always walking instead of driving, talking in a different accent, reasonably respectable, carrying a black briefcase. A child once shouted, "Oh look it's the doctor" as I went past (a less respectful one shouted, "Harold Shipman"), and the newsagent thinks I teach at the Technical College. Would they be interested in the truth? Not very likely. It would require a slight adjustment at the margins of their consciousness, not too difficult, but bothersome. And why should I smudge the lines on their map if it's good enough for them to steer by?
That night I woke up from a dream of gliding past a crowded quayside in the Azores. I was on a tall ship - probably the Winston Churchill. There were only inches to spare, but the caricature locals promenading on the harbour in their black mantillas didn't seem perturbed. The thump woke me and I lay there listening. It could have been our daughter banging the bathroom door, I thought, but I didn't quite believe it, even though I'd technically been asleep when I heard it so I couldn't really be sure one way or the other. I tried not to think that it was the machine in difficulties. My wife stirred.
"What's up?" she demanded resentfully.
"Nothing, just a noise," I whispered.
"It's no good whispering now, you've woken me up. Look, it's getting light outside. It wasn't that bloody machine, was it?"
"I doubt it."
"What are you doing?"
"I'm just going to take a look."
I went downstairs, past the steady breathing from my daughter's bedroom. The house had its usual night-time look. It was a different place, a cave, a stage set, waiting for something. I felt as though I wasn't supposed to be there.
The machine was all right though, humming calmly. Every now and then the small green light flickered, but it had always done that, even when it was at the parents' house. Nothing would really go wrong, nothing serious. It would last a lifetime, unless... I went back upstairs.
"Nothing wrong," I told my wife. She grunted. I couldn't get back to sleep. There was a hard, uncomfortable thought in the room. I shut my eyes but it was still there. It was in the shape of a sentence. It said,
"She'll die before you - or you'll die before her."
I twitched and flapped the thought away. I reached out and put my hand on a Scrabble piece on the night-table. My wife turned over and pushed the night-table over with a crash. "Not now ... too late ... early morning..." I tried to get back on the Winston Churchill but I fell asleep instead.
"Well, you know what I think," she said over breakfast. I was fidgeting with the broken pieces of bracket while I waited for the toast to pop.
"It's useful, though," I said, "the cat likes sleeping on top of it. And a new one would cost a fortune."
"They have remote control and everything," she said.
"I know," I said, "Bluetooth. You can talk to them on your mobile [=cell-phone, t.n.]."
"If you had one," she said. I suppose they think I'm behind the times. Even though I've got e-mail. It's just - well, all this talking? Instead of doing things, making things, being creative, they're all just recycling endless gossip.
"It's not as if it was even attractive," she said, and I had to agree. Terrible cheapskate 60's design, reminiscent of nasty speculative office blocks and those fat slanty red and white letters you still see on the front of dingy pubs in the Midlands. It was rusting here and there. And they'd used a plastic bracket that snapped without warning, leading to who knew what kind of problems. Mind you, it had taken forty years to break.
"Broke the mould," she said. I think she was laughing at me, but was she really annoyed or affectionate? Or both?
"I'm going now," she said, gathering up her files and carrier bags.
"Bye, don't miss your train," I said, putting down the plastic pieces and picking up my glasses. Our daughter wandered in. "I had a dream," she said, "the machine was crying. Then I came down to the kitchen and it had had a baby. A little one sitting on the tiles next to it, making a kind of bleeping sound. By the way, I've decided I'm going to Glasgow, not Sheffield."
About a year later, the machine was clearly in a bad way. It smelt of burning all the time, and oil dripped from under the white enamel sides. We had to sit it on newspaper. Even the cat avoided it.
Our daughter asked after it once or twice when she rang from Glasgow. She'd made a lot of friends there, it had been a good choice. We thought we might eventually move into a smaller house, and we started looking, half seriously, at the estate agent's [=real-estate agent's office, t.n.].
"I might feel a bit less irrelevant in a smaller house," my wife said.
"There's nothing irrelevant about you," I said. I was wiping the floor round the machine after a particularly bad spill. "You're a Whiz at word-games."
"Don't say that," she said, looking pleased. "Anyway it's beside the point."
"Everything's out of place at the moment," I said, straightening up. "It'll settle."
"I tell you what we could do," she said, looking meaningfully at the machine. "They've got some special offers on at the moment."
"Less than a grand?" I asked.
"Well, not quite," she said. She stopped and looked out of the window. Some crocuses were just visible on the grass - tiny blue and yellow flames, like pilot lights. I scooped out a couple of gummy old Scrabble pieces from behind the fridge. "Irrelevant," she said.
"I'll take it to the tip tomorrow," I said.
I felt disloyal, but I couldn't change my mind after seeing how pleased she looked. I lugged the heavy machine to the car. It was still warm. I could see the scratch marks the cat had made, and the dent where I'd kicked the side panel after one of our arguments.
The old man who supervised operations at the Civic Amenity Site was impressed when I unloaded it.
"You don't see many of those," he said as I laid it at his feet.
"It still works, just about," I said, "one of the restraint brackets has gone, though."
"Bloody awful things," he said, pushing at it with his toecap. "One went up in the neighbour's house, burnt the lot. Terrible business. Of course, some people swear by them."
"Like Ladas," I said.
"Got a new Skoda myself," he said, "you'd be surprised."
I wasn't really. I drove back home and made a pot of tea, looking at the stained square on the floor where the machine had stood. Work to be done there.
I took a mug of tea upstairs to my wife. She was sitting in the bathroom, pink and thoughtful.
"She rang this morning," she said. "We've been invited up to Glasgow. There's a show she's involved in. A couple of weeks' time."
"Great," I said. I put the mug on the side of the sink. The sun was shining through the frosted glass. I was momentarily distracted by the water on her elbows. I fished in my back pocket.
"Look what I found on the worktop."
"A holy relic," she said, reaching out for the white pieces of bracket. She turned them this way and that, held them like a pendant in front of her.
"A complicated shape," she said, "it reminds me of those little bones in the inner ear."
"I suppose so."
She handed the pieces back to me.
"There's a lot of things in the world, aren't there."
I winced at the pool of water on the floor, and then I went downstairs with the two pieces of bracket. They'd come in useful some time. Actually, they already had.