Self-portrait by Otto Dix

Vending Billy
2003-04-10 - 8:56 p.m.

This is a story I've written. Like most of my stories, I've really no idea if it's any good. But I just want rid of it. Which is why I post it here rather than doing anything else. The style doesn't really work, but I don't know how else to write it.

Normal service will be resumed shortly.

My cousin had a friend called Bill. He was one of those guys who everybody liked, who always seems full of energy when everyone around him is sagging with Monday mornings or Wednesday lunchtime or Friday afternoon or Sunday night. He'd sit watching films in rapt attention perched on his seat-edge like a cormorant, then rush around for days after telling everyone about the bit where the hero rode that killer whale down the stairwell. He loved a good curry and could tell anyone who asked or didn't ask the best Indian restaurant in ten different cities.

Billy studied business administration at college, then in the summer got a job selling office supplies over the telephone. He'd call up a company, asking them innocent questions about what brand of printer they had and how many employees there were. Then gradually he'd offer them paper, toner cartridges, staplers, pens, desks, boardroom tables, exclusive distribution contracts for the patented Slovenian successor to the panel pin, until he had wallpapered their entire company in green generic Post-It notes the colour of slime.

Working in sales, what you need is motivation. If you've no incentive, why would you risk your self-esteem while snotty people in fake phone voices question the efficacy of your hole punch? Bill liked to cheer on everyone around him, patting them on the back or slipping in a hug when he could get away with it, but for himself, the reward was always internal, brown and sugary.

Whenever he made a big sale, he would catapult out of his seat with a celebratory cheer, and strut up the corridor to the vending machines, as though he was the Oscar-winning star of a heart-rending AIDS orphan drama. When he had sold enough rubber bands to catapult the Earth to fiery death in the sun, he would march up to the Coca-Cola machine, push a few coins in the slot high up the right side, and claim his brown sticky beverage. The red-and-silver can would fall into the deep black trough at the bottom and he would be sinking its chilled sweetness five seconds after hitting that oblong button marked "caffeinacious slurps".

Except for this day. No response. He'd dropped in 60 pence and selected his drink of choice, but no can came out. He tried again, frowned; this failure had stripped him of all the satisfaction of his latest sale. He leant back on the cabinet and flashed back to his childhood art class. His prize-winning pictorial depiction of Robert the Bruce riding a spider into battle against the Sheriff of Nottingham was vivid before his eyes. He had rushed home from art class, only to reach the door and find the house empty, door locked and his key forgotten on the table inside.

That day long ago as Billy sat on the step it started to rain. He held the paper above his head to keep dry. By the time his mother had finished work, the paint had streaked into lines like the view from a train window, until it looked as if The Bruce had a giant penis up his arse which was causing him to jump really quickly. The next day he switched classes to office administration, where he flourished and thought no more of paint.

Billy thumped the Coke machine without any expectation it would change anything. He tried other buttons, but no drink was forthcoming. He looked around to see if there was anyone he could grass it up to, but there was no one else in the vending area. Knowing he was alone, he bent down and stuck his fingers in the trough at the bottom.

He couldn't get his hand up far without lying on the ground, but by then he was too occupied in his cola-seeking mission to worry what he would look like to any casual Snickers-seeker. Within there were all manner of blocks, ridges, ducts and conduits, but nothing that felt like a cool can of juice. Awkwardly, Billy got his shoulder in the trough and ran his hand up to the right.

It all reminded him of aged fifteen sticking his hand into Mel Aitken's pants, trying to find her sexual organs with his probing digits. His fingertips touched cog-wheels, and as he slipped the left side into his body into the machine, his hand ran over a drive band, and a mechanism of some sort. He had ended up putting his finger up her backside. A firm tug at a plastic rotor spun the inner workings into life, and barbed gears seized his fingers inescapably.

As the mechanism continued to turn, Billy found his entire body drawn upward like meat into a vacuum cleaner. From neck to hips he was in the bottom, and with a squelching noise his head was captured. Finally his legs followed. Billy gasped short breaths, lost in the dark, twisted in strange angles like a circus performer in a bodystocking. He could barely move, just straighten his neck a bit and feel his hands about.

After a moment of insensibility, Billy realised that he was trapped inside the Coca-Cola vending machine. Bunching his fists up next to his face, he banged and screamed. The resonance of the sound in the tiny space was deafening, and anyway nobody came. Billy sighed and waited. He was caught awkwardly sitting, his head against the front, his feet near the bottom. Something inside wedged him upwards, stopping him going back out.

Billy waited an hour, then started to wonder why his friends had not found him yet. He concluded that there must have been a run on those new recycled envelopes, and everyone was busy typing hundreds and thousands into their terminals. They would be looking for him soon when the country's receptionists took their kettle-boiling time. He heard footsteps, two sets, walking through the door towards the vending area. He banged again.

"Fucking machine's playing up," Tom said.

"Give it a slap," replied Aziz.

Tom belted the Coke machine and Billy hit his head inside.

"See, that did the trick," Aziz said, and he dropped a coin into the quietened machine. Inside, it bounced off Billy's head. Aziz hit a button but nothing happened. He gave the cabinet another thwack.

"Try another can," Tom suggested. He dropped in a fifty pence and it smacked Billy in the eye. Aziz hit the buttons again, finishing with a flying kick.

"Hey!" Billy shouted, but they didn't hear him.

Like a good salesman, Tom outside wouldn't quit. More coins of smaller denominations rained down on Billy's head. Bill would do anything to stop the impacts. He managed to reach his hand over and pull a can of Diet Coke from the top of the column. He let it bounce off his knees into the tray below. Aziz's hand slid in just an inch below Billy's left foot, and Bill tried to speak, but Tom chose that moment to ask an inordinately long question about that man who married a Siamese twin and if it would count as a threesome. Billy's voice was weak and unheard.

Aziz opened the can, and they went off. "Hey! Hey!" Billy called, banging on the door as they left. Maybe they would call Donald, the elderly maintenance man who ate photocopier toner. But then he remembered the time the machine was out of order for three weeks and he'd taken to drinking diluting pear and blackcurrant out of sheer desperation.

If only he hadn't given in and passed them a can. But then he remembered. He had sugary beverages aplenty all around him, and till that point he hadn't even thought of drinking them. Too worried about serving others, that was his problem. He got his hands on a can of Coke and flipped the ring pull. But he was tormented like Tantalus. His arms would not bend the can to his mouth. He could only, with twisting, hold the can above his head and pour the liquid over his forehead and via his nose, catching it on his tongue. Mmmm, sticky face guttering.

That night, he sat in the darkness of the machine, counting the seconds. 23001 23002 23003 he went on. He had started with 23000 as an estimate. It was better than sheep, and he fell asleep. He awakened a second later. No daylight could come in the building; there was no birdsong or cock-crow to alert him to the coming of dawn. No animals visited the vending area, no brave mouse after a Kit-Kat, or nightingale seeking to add a Lilt to its voice.

Blankness was all around him, and in that void Billy saw his past and future stretch out around him. He had thought once of teaching lines of children eager for his drink-related anecdotage, or of making a fortune in the city buying and selling computerised nothingnesses. But here, even if he escaped, he could be working the telephones till he was a tired old man like George. He could spend his whole life trapped here, even if he wasn't in such close proximity to fast food.

Perhaps he could become a supervisor. Maybe he could find a woman he didn't love to be his wife and while he was with her he would dream of other prettier girls like Kay on the floor above. Then the sedentary life would weaken his heart, and one day a particularly ignorant customer would break it altogether, his ventricles exploding like party poppers, and his head collapsing to the desk. They wouldn't even notice his body till someone wanted to borrow his stapler (super industrial strength, good for sticking for a walrus to an elephant, he would tell the people on the phone), pulling its metal teeth out of Billy's nose and noticing that he didn't scream.

He thought of escape: destruction, dislocation and dismemberment. As a child he had dreamt of omnipresence and fragmentation, two signs of the same coin. If he could cut his hand off and send it scurrying out for help. Cut a hole in the back of his neck, pull his bones out like filleting a fish, and let his floppy body slither out the hole. If only it was snakes or eels who had descended from the trees, gained consciousness and invented tools and vending machines and telesales. A viper salesman could slip out of any retail mechanism. And into any purchasing officer's heart. v No part of the machinery detached or opened outwards. There were no screws to turn, no clasps to flick, no door handle to open his jail or keys to pinch off a warden. Had the makers not anticipated this? He dropped a couple of cans from the stack into the tray so he wouldn't be disturbed while he thought.

Morning brought the sallow rays of fluorescent light tiptoeing into the bottom of the vending tray. His world changed from black to charcoal grey. But nobody came for ages, as he sat there imagining each footfall entering the building. Boss approaches the front door. Beat. Pushes it open. Two steps. Opens inner door. Step step step step step to reception. Turns left. Ten steps to the stair door. Trip on the tile. Curse. Ten more steps.

Further hours passed till the first staff in need of refreshment walked the extra twenty-nine steps to the vending area. "Well, of course I slept with him. He had an excellent car," Kay said, walking up the corridor with another set of feet beside her. "And he kept it clean."

"Is that a euphemism?" Mhari said.

Billy could hear the rap of Kay's metal heels, and the separate squeak of trainers. The thud of a coin, and the click of buttons pressed on the coffee machine. He tried to cry out, but his throat was dry and inflexible as an unused sponge. Desperately he cracked open another can of diet cola and tipped it down his throat.

"What's that noise in the Coke machine?" Mhari said. "I think it's broken."

"It's never working. Want me to get one of the lads to thump it for you?" Kay said.

Billy waited for her money to drop in, the drink to not arrive, a self-righteous rant and the building manager to be dragged by the collar to refund her, with added compensation for hurt feelings.

Outside, Mhari shrugged and dropped her coins back into her purse. "It's crap anyway. Why can't we get Irn Bru in it?"

"Red Square," Kay said. "Why can't a machine give me what I want?"

"Try a vibrator. The one with the rabbit."

"Right, because rabbits equal sexual ecstasy," Kay laughed, and as they were leaving she gave the cabinet a wallop.

Mhari telling her "that won't help" was the last thing Billy heard as he clobbered his head on the coin mechanism and lost consciousness. Then he woke up again, and the building was quiet once more. He sighed and headbutted hopefully. Instead of oblivion, he found throbbing pain and a Wile E Coyote bump on his temple. He sank into wakefulness.

Against his will, he found his thoughts drawing inwards. He began to wonder if he might be as popular as he had thought. Perhaps when they called him fat bastard it was not out of affection. Perhaps people really did not care if he lived or died. Nobody had come looking for him. His drink-purchasing colleagues never mentioned his name. His parents failed to hack open the machine and drag him from its carbonated womb. But he had never told them about this job anyhow.

Billy stayed like that for three more days, drinking the cola and peeing out the coin return hole. He soon learnt not to try to bang or attract attention, since that only made his colleagues violently assault the machine. They say it's the squeaky wheel that gets the oil, but Billy was getting a pasting. He learned to sense what coins had been inserted by the different sized bumps the made on his head. When sufficient currency had fallen on him, he would make change, then lift a can of fizzy from the stack behind his head and pass it to the world outside.

He thought about the tea and coffee machine across the corridor, and wondered if there might be someone in there too. Someone who had been doused in boiling water every time Bill hit 248 (tea with milk and extra sugar). That kid from Cumbernauld who'd just vanished one day and never come in again and they thought he'd joined a metal band.

All the automatic machinery he had seen in the world around him - he supposed each washing machine might imprison someone who had gone too deep looking for a missing coin; each freezer might hold a shivering ice-block of human flesh. Like the actors in the television he had believed in as a child. He started to sing a song to lift his spirits, then remembered the people in the radio, and was silent once more.

Three days had passed, and it was Friday afternoon. If he did not get free soon, he would be trapped all weekend without even the company of pound coins on his head. He resolved that next time someone came, he would bang and raise hell and not stop, no matter how hard he was kicked or how many coins were deposited.

He waited two hours. Billy began to fear he had left it too late, and despite his chronic constipation he felt a desperate need. Then Billy heard Andy approach, his phlegmy breathing outside. New at the job. Not a natural salesman. Likely to be back signing on when his three months were up. Change jangled in Andy's pocket.

"What's that funny smell in the coin return slot?" Andy said.

Billy shouted, "Let me out," and he started to bang on the front without a care for how the echoes deafened him. Andy shoved some coins in the slot. He didn't seem to notice Bill's racket. Andy made a selection, and when nothing happened, he swore.

It had been a bad day for Andy. He had sold exactly nothing, and had made a plaintive attempt to ask Kay out, only to say, "Who are you doing this weekend?" instead of "What are you doing?" So he kicked the machine with all his strength, knocking it back into the wall.

Billy's head smacked into machinery. Andy bent down. Billy could hear his hand scraping around in the tray beneath him, looking for stray cans or coins. Andy even brushed a finger against his foot, but never realised what it was. Andy stood up and grabbed the cabinet, one hand on either side. He began to rock it forwards. Billy was thrown back and forth, alternately clipping the back of his head and his face, trying desperately to brace himself.

But Andy would not give up. He shook and shook and shouted and swore, pulling the vending machine forwards and rocking it back again. As Billy got the measure of the motions, he found he could help Andy swing further. Billy shifted forwards as the machine rocked forwards, and jerked back as it returned.

He was being beaten to a pulp inside. There was only one chance. Andy took hold of the top and tugged the machine forwards. Inside, Billy swung his face into the front door with all his strength. Within, he could feel it reach the critical point, balancing poised on the bottom front edge. One by one the cans slid off the stack and cracked into the front door in sprays of fizz. The vending machine lost its battle with gravity and tumbled.

It landed horizontal on the floor, in a sea of cola and squashed Andy. The top of the machine flew off, and the light almost blinded Billy. Bill felt for a moment an out-of-body experience. Then he pulled himself back to reality and clambered out the top. Andy had splatted and sprayed like an orange, but Billy tried not to look or think of the price he had paid. He had done what had to be done, and in seconds was out the fire exit and into the fading evening light.

You've probably seen Andy's photo on the internet. And I suppose you laughed at his story. But nobody ever saw Billy again. My cousin said that he was living in south east Asia on a diet of brown rice and springwater, but I don't know if that's true. Could he ever escape? Wherever you travel in the world these days, you see vending machines and you know what's in there. You see their bright shiny buttons and you feel in your bones the silent screams of the eager shoppers trapped within.


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