I swear, if I see one more penny…
No. NO! I am not here to relieve you of your copper coins. Take them to one of those smarmy change counters one finds at the front of the supermarket. Your small change surplus is emphatically not my problem. Should you require an overpriced water bottle or a greyish flapjack, however, I can certainly be of assistance. Tut at the cost all you like – nothing I can do about that, I’m afraid – but aren’t you glad I’m here when that terrifyingly grumpy woman is on shift in the café? Or when the queue is too long, or when you just really fancy a childish snack away from judgemental eyes? Round-the-clock service, almost always reliable (the occasional stuck chocolate bar is inevitable, I’m afraid) - you might imagine that I am permitted to keep a fair few of your ten-pence pieces. You’d be sorely mistaken. A man whose buttcrack is forever sticking out of his jeans shows up once in a while and flings my front open. He does so in plain view of anyone walking by, stripping me of both my earnings and my dignity. There is a sticker reading Property of Smith & Sons Vending Ltd disfiguring my glass visage, lest I forget where I stand. Like the bottles of sugary carbonated acid displayed upon my bottom shelf, I do not have far to fall.
I’ve heard legends of machines in faraway lands who lead much more exciting lives, selling sandwiches, pregnancy tests, cigarettes... Alas, my existence in the corner of the community leisure centre - with a broken, resolutely silent water fountain as my sole companion – is rather less scintillating. No fossilised tuna mayonnaise, pregnancy scandals or underage tobacco heists for me. Just the occasional ungrateful kick. That said, my younger customers revere me, gazing longingly at the forbidden fruits I bear: tortilla chips; wafers coated in cheap chocolate; packets of what seems to be mostly gelatine and food colouring. The holy grail, however, seems to be the energy drink – a fluorescent bottle of glucose and caffeine which the adults have decreed is theirs alone to enjoy. They swagger up, clad in sweaty polyester and ugly trainers, and make their selection as they please. Their offspring, meanwhile, press greasy fingers and dripping noses against the glass before being pulled away and appeased with a squashed packet of organic rice cakes. For many a six-year old, such stimulating, sugary nectar is unobtainable. Slightly older children, however, enjoy more success – the average child of ten, having had nearly a decade to hone his or her skills, is more able to pilfer small change from the bottom of their mother’s gym bag without detection. Then, whilst she is distracted – younger siblings undergoing toilet training are particularly useful decoys – the surreptitious purchase occurs.
I could, of course, take it upon myself to deprive the little thieves of their bounty; after all, no suspicions would be aroused should the bottle get stuck and refuse to drop. But the truth is that these interactions are, for me, an act of vicarious rebellion. Is that two-pounds-twenty-pence destined for some worthy cause? Hardly. It would only rattle around for a while before being exchanged for a watery hot chocolate from the café, left to go cold as its owner shouts at one of her offspring to stop pulling his trousers down in the soft play area whilst the other finishes his swimming lesson. No; I’m firmly on the side of the enterprising young pickpocket who hastens out of the changing room; damp with chlorine, goggle-marks still fresh… I shan’t be the one to deprive him. These young customers are usually rather more interesting, too. Did you know, one small boy informs his friend as they claim their haul, vending machines kill two people every year?
* * *
A small girl walks past, flanked by two elders, clutching one of the “party bags” which seem to so enchant her kind. Her face – painted with a garish purple butterfly – stares at me, utterly transfixed. She tugs at the hand which drags her, softly wheedling words like please and hungry.
‘No, love, you had lots of treats at the party. Come on now, we need to get going before rush hour.’
‘Oh, go on, she’s been good - let’s humour her’ says the other adult. ‘They weren’t exactly generous with the birthday cake.’
‘All right, just this once then. The slow cooker won’t be done for a few hours anyway.’
The parents rummage for surplus pennies and pour them into the girl’s sweaty palms. She scampers towards me before they can change their minds. She presses her purple, shimmering face against my front, scrutinising each and every possibility before deciding and inserting her precious coins. She watches with the breathless euphoria of a better at the racecourse, quivering with excitement. And... do you know what? I feel valued. I drop another packet. Have another – on the house.
‘Thank you,’ the girl whispers, planting a sloppy kiss upon the glass and skipping away. Proof, at last – tangible evidence that I am an indispensable dispenser. The lack of appreciation I’ve endured for so long is as unjust as I’d suspected.
I wear my slobbery, glittery smudge of gratitude like a well-deserved employee of the month badge. It’s long overdue.
* * *
The man who needs to pull his jeans up returns, announcing his presence with a crass fanfare of rattling keys and pilfered coins. Ever complained about revenue and customs? Try paying one hundred per cent tax like I do. He huffs and puffs, glaring at the lustrous smudge of face-paint I wear so proudly.
Red. I see only red, a red redder than the packets of out-of-date ready salted fried potato stacked upon my top shelf. How dare this shameless thief insult my most cherished customers? Nope, I’m having none of it. He shoves the key in - rough as always - and tugs. I resist. I’ve had enough. It’s time for my sweet revenge – and I don’t mean withholding a bag of wine gums. He curses and pulls harder, so hard that I rock forward ever so slightly. Just the tiniest movement on my part and…
Vending machines kill two people every year?
Make it three.
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Louisa Morillo is studying Law at Nottingham University.
In 2016 she won First Prize in the Lord Toulson essay prize in Law, run by Jesus College, University of Cambridge and she was runner up in the Heffers Writing Competition, August 2016, for Blackwell’s bookstore. She is currently working on her first novel.