Nick Harkaway
Woven Gold. And that is not the most remarkable thing about the doodah. Joe Spork saw what was inside it for the first time twenty minutes ago. He has no idea what it does. First, there is the matter of the lock. It is, in fact, five locks, each one tiny and rotated by a different section of the whojimmy, each one unlocking the next one, until the last twist releases a clasp and allows the whole to open.
These locks are distributed around the interior of the ball in a strange cage-like architecture which reminds Joe distantly of the aviary at London Zoo. Disconnected from one another, they flip back like the wing-cases of a glorious beetle, clasped loosely around the ball’s clockwork heart. That, by itself, is enough to attract his most alert scrutiny. It is good work, and that modest assessment is in the trade tongue, the dour speech of craftsmen looking at their own: Not bad, your Taj Mahal, old son. Bit bald about the edges, mind. And, Oh aye, replies the master builder, it’s all right. You don’t think the water feature’s a bit loud? Wish I’d had time to build t’other one in black, that would have been something . . . Still, it’s nothing to be ashamed of, I suppose. You can’t get everything right.
That kind of good work. Rare work. Brilliant work. White-gloved and with a pair of softwood tweezers (better they should break than this object should be scratched) he examines it again, unfolds the locking mechanism – not without a slightly filthy feeling that he’s undressing a sleeping princess – and examines the mechanism within under his thick, jeweller’s lens. The largest cog is perhaps two-eighths of an inch across. The smallest is so tiny that Joe has no idea how it could have been made, except that he knows exactly: someone made a special tool, a thing which mimics the gestures of a normal-size tool on a far smaller scale. Write your name normally on the left, and it is scratched into the panel on the right small enough to fit on a grain of rice. Half a grain. And then – this is the part which boggles his mind – each individual piece, each spring and cog and counter, was made by hand and fitted together.
It is a rippling, shifting landscape of interlocking gets and pins, tracks and catches. The envisioning of this apparatus, the planning, without a computer or even a photocopier, must have taken a year in itself. If a normal piece of clockwork is a person, this thing is a great city. It is folded on itself, each section fulfilling several roles, turning in one axis, then another, then another. There is, just here, a yet smaller case which performs some outré function he cannot fathom, but which itself is also the weight driving some manner of self-winding system. The cog which is the output stream, which pokes through the ball at the north pole and meets whatever remarkable thing is driven by this tiny engine (although it’s not an engine, of course, it’s something far more strange and powerful: a storage medium, a computer’s hard disk made of brass), is actually just a dust cover.
When the thing is active it slides to one side to reveal a plug of gears so complex that Joe Spork has come to call it in his mind by a modern name. He calls it an interface. Enigma, he wonders. Colossus? Is this a wartime thing? A code-breaker or a code-maker? He has no idea. He knows only that it is unrecorded, magical, genius. Hence: priceless. And yes, there is a small flaw, but hardly a surprising one after decades in a sack somewhere. He reaches in – and stops. A tiny sparkle beneath his tweezers. Impossible. Joe peers, leaning down, adjusts the lamp. Then he brings two more lights closer, and a hand lens which in combination with the main one gives him a truly ludicrous magnification. Absolutely impossible.
Beside the smallest cog, driven by a secondary ratchet on the face of the tiny thing, there is a glimmer of metal. Through the double lens he peers, and yes, there it is, appearing to hang in space: another layer of clockwork so small that it’s barely visible even now, a tracery of gossamer meshed and geared and fading away into the interior of the ball. He stares at it, awestruck and even a little upset. He can do nothing with this. He would need other tools, a cleanroom, practice in micro-gauge engineering . . . he is utterly outclassed. Except . . .
Except. If there’s damage to the microscopic part, he’s out of his depth. There’s probably no one on Earth who has experience with this. It is unique – and mad, because if you can make this, why wouldn’t you use printed circuitry? Unless, of course, there was no such thing when you made it. That aside: the macro part is familiar enough. And yes, the central section lifts out as a single piece. This problem was foreseen (of course). He goes to the kitchen and cleans a glass casserole dish, dries it thoroughly, and lifts the impossible heart of the ball into the dish, then covers it with the lid. Then he turns his attention to the rest of the mechanism. Yes. This he can fix.
A weak pin has sheared away, leaving a small arm flapping. It’s a matter of . . . well . . . it might take a little longer, actually . . . At some point he finishes, and closes his eyes for quarter of an hour to rest them. Catnapping is a skill everyone should have. He checks his work and finds it good. The rest of the mechanism is perfect. There isn’t even any dust. He cleans and oils it anyway, out of respect. You, who made this: I wish we could have met. One thing is plain to a hedgehog, as his unlamented father would have had it: this is not your average music box. He should call a newspaper. He should call Harticle’s. He should call his mother – not because of this but just in general. He doesn’t.
Slowly, he begins to assemble the other pieces of the doodah. They’re splendidly done, but they look brutish and plain now. The puzzle comes together under his hands without effort. After a second, he realises he’s mimicking the patterns of the ball. As above, so below. More elegance. He’ll have to give the whojimmy back. It wouldn’t be right to separate it from the machine itself. Although if they were to give him a long-term maintenance contract, he could always . . . He looks at his task and his tools, and allows his body to work without interference. Now that the puzzle is solved and the tasks are set, he knows how to do this at such a low level it’s important not to think too much. This is the part he loves, the vanishing of self. When he finishes, he realises how long he has been working, and has to rush.
Extract from Angelmaker (London: Random House, 2012)
Nick Harkaway
A Journal about craft and creativity
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