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Tim Dowling: the coffee machine has one final shock in store | Life and style


I am sitting in the kitchen, staring deep into my laptop, when the youngest one walks in and stands behind me.

“So now the new thing with the coffee machine is,” he says. This is one of his favourite conversational techniques: begin in the middle; let the other guy supply his own intro.

“Uh-huh,” I say.

“The rubber gasket is starting to protrude, letting coffee leak everywhere,” he says.

“Why do you think that is?” I say. This is one of my favourite techniques: when in doubt, talk like a language processing program from the late 1970s.

“Because some people never clean it, and now it’s blocked with coffee grounds,” he says, removing the water tank from the machine and refilling it.

“Please go on,” I say.

“The pressure is so high it’s deforming the gasket, because some people never clean it.”

“Perhaps it needs descaling,” I say.

“It doesn’t need descaling,” he says.

Since before the pandemic, the coffee machine has served four people working from home, producing between 12 and 20 cups of coffee a day. There is a permanent stain beneath it, where leaked coffee has etched the worktop. Some mornings it groans and howls and backs up, hot espresso oozing from the screw holes. What I’m saying is: I knew this day was coming.

When I go back to the kitchen for a late afternoon coffee I find the machine sitting unplugged and off-centre. I return it to its position over the stain and plug it in. I push the on button, but nothing happens. When I push harder, holding the button in, I feel a curious sensation, that of electricity coursing through my fingers and down my arm.

I find the youngest one in his bedroom working at two computer screens simultaneously. I have no idea what he does for a living.

“Is there something I should know about the coffee machine?” I say.

“That people never clean it,” he says, not looking up.

“I mean, it just gave me an electric shock,” I say.

“Did it?” he says. “Whoa.”

“It’s not ideal,” I say.

“Can we fix it?” he says.

“Generally when I get electrocuted by something, that’s when I stop trying to repair it,” I say.

“Yeah, wise,” he says.

Wise, but not true. I move the machine to a different plug to test it further, letting it electrocute me over and over, thinking: if I get a coffee out of this, it will be worth it. Finally, the machine loses even its ability to shock.

The next morning I have to get up early to finish some work – my alarm goes off at 6.40am. Dragging myself from bed I am greeted by the sight of myself in a full length mirror. Today the picture is worse than usual but the sun is out and a fresh breeze is coming through the window. As I pull on yesterday’s trousers I am overcome by something akin to optimism.

This evaporates as soon as I enter the kitchen and see the brown stain where the coffee machine used to be. On another day this would be a good enough reason to return to bed – I mean, what’s the point?

In the past we had other appliances capable of producing coffee, but I can’t find them. It’s likely that after years of disuse they were quietly disposed of. Because some people really like throwing things away. I think: this is an emergency. I step into some shoes and head for the high street.

Here is what I would have thought: that all the people walking down the street with lanyards round their necks would already have coffees in their hands, maybe even one in each hand. But no one is holding coffee. Of the eight coffee shops between me and the station, not one is open at 7.15. I think: how can this be the system?

I walk as far as the park, take a turn, and head back. The coffee shop nearest home, now open, already has a queue three deep. There are signs explaining the rules: don’t put sugar in your coffee here – do it over there. The woman in front keeps turning halfway round to look at me; I must already be doing something wrong.

“Then she said, ‘You’re Tim Dowling’,” I tell my wife, an hour later.

“You got recognised?” my wife says.

“She took a picture of me for her family WhatsApp,” I say.

“Were you thrilled?” she says.

“I was just like, but my hair,” I say.

“It’s not looking its best,” she says.

“I can’t go back out there today,” I say. “But if you do, mine’s a latte.”

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