Oliver Hartfield retrieved the handkerchief from his trouser pocket. He flipped it out, blew his nose, wiped the moisture from his nostrils and shoved the handkerchief back into its place. An old man in a young man’s body. His brown scruffy hair grew in a thicket of tangles, his young eyes gleamed with bright intelligence. The strength in his limbs contradicted the curved shoulders earnt from years of hunching over workbenches.
Oliver Hartfield lived in the clouds. His mind ticked away with cogs and coils, oil and metal. An inventor to his core. He tinkered constantly. But this latest project had him stuck. As he sloped along the road his leather boots scuffed the weathered cobblestones. The laces on the boots tied in a haphazard fashion and triple knotted. He walked to get his mind in order but it still heaved away like an industrious beaver that churned again and again on the problem. Oblivious to the soft drizzle of rain, Oliver meandered blindly past the worn buildings, neglected corners and faded facades that shaped gritty streets he trod. The air filled with the earthy scent of wet pavement.
A flash jolted him from his reverie. It jerked at his attention and slammed him to a sudden stop. An unusual brass machine sat in the bow window of an unassuming shop. He studied the remarkable brass machine through the grimy window. What was it? Lit by an amber glow the device stood at an unpretentious eight inches in height and width. It had a peculiar, asymmetrical arrangement of gears, that gave it an unconventional appearance. Each gear adorned with unique patterns and etches. At the centre of the machine sat a large, intricately crafted cog layered with enigmatic marks. He looked up at the sign above the entrance.
Agatha’s Oddity Oasis. He had a sister called Agatha. He hadn’t seen her for years. He pushed the thought of her away. Until he completed his work he couldn’t go back. It was all too complicated. He turned away from the shop, the reminder of his sister too painful to cope with. But as he swung away the gleam of the machine in the window pulled him back. With a determined nod, he reached for the door handle and pushed the door open. A small bell rang over the door with a delicate tring-a-ling-ling, he looked up as he entered the shop.
Ambient lights cast a warm glow across artefacts, trinkets, and oddities that defied explanation. Fascinating shadows webbed the walls. Behind the shadows, the walls were thick with half-hidden tapestries and antique maps. A symphony of scents assaulted him - metallic tangs, musty books, aged timber, and hints of exotic spices.
‘How can I help you, dearie?’ A high thin voice wove its way passed the second-hand cabinets, bookshelves, curly coat stands, and suits of armour.
Oliver edged past the frazzled stuffed faux-bear, through the maze of cabinets towards the voice. ‘The machine in the window,’ he said as he ducked under a low-hung shield. ‘Could I have a closer look at it?’ He finally saw the source of the voice. A wizened old woman, with silver hair, wrinkled skin, and a thin bird-like frame.
‘The machine in the window? Yes dearie, of course. What does it look like?’ The woman watched him, her eyes bright and bird-like.
Oliver relaxed; he felt an instant natural affinity with the elderly lady. She had an innate curiosity that mirrored his own. He wanted her to like him, the way he immediately liked her. He opened his mouth to describe the brass machine. Then closed it again. Oliver could remember its brassiness. The approximate size. It had cogs. But the actual device, how it looked… the image proved itself elusive and slunk away dream-like.
The woman watched him, amusement lifted her lips. ‘Are you an engineer dearie? You like machines?’
‘Yes,’ Oliver said, confused by his difficulty to define the machine he saw.
‘You have a problem with a machine?’
Oliver stopped trying to reconstruct the machine in his mind. ‘How did you know that?’
‘Oh, we get all sorts in here.’
Oliver studied the old woman not sure what to make of her comment. Her lips curved into an engaging smile. His lips twitched back.
‘Why don’t you bring your machine in? I have a workshop in the back to fix things. Two heads are better than one.’
‘You’re an engineer?’ he said in gruff disbelief.
‘Oh, you know, I dabble.’
Oliver wanted to bark out a snide comment. What could an old woman who worked in a curiosity shop know about engineering? He bit it back when he met her eyes. Her eyes held his with utter confidence. A warmth of interest and extension of friendship shone from her. He discovered he wanted to believe she could help. ‘My name’s Oliver,’ he blurted out.
‘Mine’s Agatha, dearie. Now run along and get your machine. I have another customer due.’
Oliver turned and walked to the door. He moved fast, in a rush to leave so he could come back quickly. He opened the door and a young girl pushed past him.
Agatha’s voice called out to the child, ‘How can I help you, petal?’ Oliver glanced up to the machine in the window as he left, to see why he couldn’t describe it. The machine had been replaced by a soft blue rabbit. Perhaps Agatha had an assistant that pulled it out for him already, how thoughtful.
He ran back to his workshop scooped up his machine and headed back to the Oddity Oasis. It was only when he pressed his back against the shop door and heard the tring-a-ling-ling of the bell, that he stopped to wonder, what was it he was doing here? It made no sense. Not really. She couldn’t help. Except, he knew, even if Agatha couldn’t help, at least he would be able to spend some time with her.
He worked his way through the shop. The machine in his arms cumbersome. The corridors were made narrower by his more complicated bulk. ‘Oliver,’ Agatha tweeted in her melodious voice. ‘Follow me.’ She led him through a curtain at the back of the shop. ‘My, my,’ she said as she stepped through. The workshop boasted sturdy benches, lined with an assortment of tools. Shelves displayed a collection of peculiar and intricate machines. A fusion of aged brass, oil, and the faint hint of burnt metal scented the warm air. ‘Why don’t you put your machine on the bench there?’ she said, with a wave of vague indication.
Oliver set the weight of the machine down.
‘So,’ Agatha said. ‘What is it?’
‘Oh,’ Oliver pulled at his collar. ‘I call it, The Metamorphix Transmuter.’
‘Really? What does it do?’
‘Erm… it employs intricate mechanisms to effectuate metamorphosis.’
‘Fancy,’ Agatha said. Oliver swore he could hear laughter in her tone. ‘And it doesn’t work?’
‘Well,’ Oliver said. ‘It worked once. I can’t seem to figure out what I did.’
Agatha nodded. ‘I see.’
‘You said you can help me?’
The little old lady rolled up her sleeves and glanced up with a merry light in her eyes. ‘I’ll just pull up this stool and you start going backwards.’
‘Yes, you created the device, uncreate it.’
‘If that’s what you want to call it.’ Agatha pulled over a tall stool and climbed up on it to watch Oliver’s progress. He picked up a tiny screwdriver and started to unfasten the back of the machine. He didn’t think this would help but he wanted to please Agatha. He’d dismantled and recreated it so many times, even if this didn’t help fix the machine, it kind of helped fix him a little. He felt happier than he had for a while. The companionship of the little old lady fed something in him he didn’t know he was hungry for.
He and Agatha chatted as he took the machine apart. The conversation drifted from one place to another. A few times he found he had stopped and somehow had his elbow leant against the bench as he described a trip to the Ice and Snow Festival in Harbin, China, or the Catacombs of Paris. He waved the screwdriver around as he spoke. ‘Of course, that was years ago.’
‘Really?’ Agatha said. ‘You don’t look old enough to have ‘years ago’.’
Oliver’s brow deepened; his eyes shrunk. He combed a hand through his brown locks. ‘It’s this damn machine.’
‘Your Metamorphix Transmuter? You know I didn’t really understand what it does.’ She pointed to a tiny coil. ‘Oh, is that right?’
Only when she pointed it out did he see it looked slightly out of alinement. He fiddled with it. ‘The machine is the bane of my existence. You know that term, be careful what you wish for?’
‘Oh yes dearie, I hear that a lot.’
‘I wanted to make millions, hopefully, billions. I suppose in one way, the fact it went wrong saved humankind. It didn’t save me though. I just want it to work once more and then I’ll destroy it.’
‘How long have you been working on it?’
Oliver’s voice caught in his throat. He forced out the word, ‘Years.’
Agatha watched his fingers fumble in the machine, occupied for a moment by the delicate movements. ‘Is that supposed to lean that way?’
Oliver looked at where her little finger pointed. ‘No.’ he said and pushed it back.
‘I’m surprised it took you so long to find my shop,’ Agatha said.
‘I only leave my workshop for materials and food.’ Her comment struck him when he took time to think about it. His mouth tightened. ‘Why would you think I would be looking for your shop?’
‘Oh no, dearie, I didn’t think that at all. That’s not the way it works. What does that red light do?’
‘Hmm… it shouldn’t blink like that.’ He used the edge of the tiny screwdriver to move a switch.
‘Well. That feels right.’ Agatha straightened up. ‘Why don’t you re-make it?’
‘Reconstruct it, you mean?’
‘Yes, dearie if that works.’
He turned to face her. Where Agatha perched on the stool, their heads were level. ‘You aren’t an engineer, are you?’ he said, his mouth tasted bitter as he accused her.
‘I never said I was.’ She grinned; her face impish. ‘We are almost done, why don’t you re-construct your machine, Oliver.’
She dabbles, that’s what she said. Oliver wasn’t sure why he felt this wave of anger. Maybe, because he found an unlikely friend in the most unlikely of places and after believing in her, he remembered he didn’t know her at all. And, in a strange way, he felt like he was losing her and it hurt. He started to reconstruct the device, he focused his attention on it blotting everything else out.
The machine sat on the bench. Complete. ‘Well, Oliver. Are you going to test it?’
‘Yes.’ He rested his hand on the machine. ‘Who are you, Agatha?’
She gave a tiny smile. ‘A fixer of sorts.’
‘Are we friends?’
‘Yes, Oliver. Always.’
He pressed the button on the machine and closed his eyes and wished hard. Cold drizzle hit his face. He opened his eyes. He stood on the cobbled street. Agatha, the workshop, and his machine had disappeared. He stared captivated by his reflection in a window. The white hair, the wrinkles. He cracked a wide smile and then laughed and laughed. He was going home.