When the plastic bracket snapped I wasn't too bothered at first. After all, it probably wasn't that important; the machine still worked well enough, though the movement was lumpy and jerky and there seemed to be a sort of rusty moan in the background that I hadn't heard before.
It wasn't the kind of plastic you could fix with polystyrene cement or Superglue. It had a greasy feel to it. It was white and granular, with small sharp edges that roughened my fingers. I could perhaps weld it with a soldering iron? But that would change its shape and leave a thick bulge at the joint, which would no doubt interfere with one of the vital functions. The machine was whirring quietly now, with just the occasional hiccup. I thought of carving another bracket out of a piece of hardwood. The prospect of sharpening my collection of blunt craft knives and chisels, and the inevitable slips and cuts, was enough to put me off. Perhaps I could retrieve my old Meccano set and bolt something together? It would never be precise enough. It might actually make things worse.
I wiped some dust off the manufacturer's plate on the base of the machine and found a telephone number with an obsolete area code. I tried ringing it anyway and a patient woman told me to please check and try again.
I took the bracket upstairs when I went to bed, and stood the broken parts on the bedside table, under the brass lamp with its paper shade. My wife was reading, one hand behind her head. She looked across at me. It was that sort of look. I undressed quickly and we made love. The book slid on to the carpet, followed by the duvet, and we ended up lying diagonally across the navy sheet, in a slight breeze from the open top window. At last we rolled away from each other and I bumped into the bedside table. One of the pieces of bracket fell over.
"From the machine."
"Oh. I'm going to the bathroom first."
"I love you," 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.
"Fucking mithering me again ... yeah ... yeah .. the corkscrew one. Hah! (a tone of pure derision). OK, fine ... no, Hartlepool. Tuesday. right? right ... Struggling buggers," 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. "Krauts or Japs 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 my wife's belly. She turned over and pushed her bottom against my front. "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."
"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, love you," I said, putting down the plastic pieces and giving her a hug. 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.
"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 beautiful."
"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 put my arm round her. "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 bath, 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 bath. The sun was shining through the frosted glass. I was slightly distracted by the light on her wet breasts. 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 kissed her warm damp shoulder, and then I went downstairs with the two pieces of bracket. They'd come in useful some time. Actually, they already had.