Maybe it was because I had recently become a Buddhist, not just to impress the hippy yoga-bunny next door, I hasten to add – I really had been trying my best to eschew material possessions and to seek some kind of spiritual enlightenment that would be an added bonus to my getting in her knickers – but it was when I was nearing the end of my Master’s studies when the ATM refused to give me any money.
There was nothing unusual about that, of course. As a postgrad student, whether I would actually get any cash or an “Insufficient funds” message was pretty much a form of gambling, and I would often feel a slight thrill of expectation as the machine took my card and then pondered my request. But no, this time was different. After I had inserted my card and entered my PIN, the message “What thesis do you require?” appeared on the grubby screen. At first, hungover and distracted, I had simply assumed it had asked what service I required, and I instinctively stabbed at the lower bottom button for cash, out of muscle memory. But when nothing happened and I re-examined the screen, scraping away the mottled flecks of dried vomit from the glass, I could see two simple options next to the uppermost button – Masters on the left and Doctorates on the right.
Confused, I pushed the button next to Masters and a further list of options appeared – “A deconstructionist critique of J.K. Rowling.” “An analysis of semiotics in Love Island.” “The works of Philip.K.Dick as postmodern predictor of intersectionality.” This final choice instantly grabbed my attention as this was in fact the subject of my own Master’s thesis which, truth to be told, I had been struggling with. Or I would have been struggling with had I bothered to start writing it at all. Slowly, I pushed the button next to that option and the machine whirred and the sound of motors and wheels and flipping paper came from within. Then my card was slowly released and, when I pulled it from the slot, the machine started printing off reams of paper, whirring and clicking as sheet after sheet was spat out. I grabbed a sheet at random and there indeed was in in-depth analysis of the works of Dick through a postmodernist lens.
While this was unusual to say the least, I was more glad to be relieved of worry about the impending dissertation deadline than I was about the nonsense of a ATM in the centre of a provincial University town proffering expertly written literary analyses for free. After returning home and checking that the machine hadn’t inserted too much idiotic Marxist analysis into the thesis, I spent the rest of the day getting it bound before submitting it early. After all, I wanted to be free of the worry of academic deadlines and get back to my main focus; drinking and pulling first year girls in Trixie’s, the tacky nightclub where there was more beer on the floor than in its patrons.
But in the following days I often stopped by the ATM to watch the queues of people stood disinterestedly in line before it, one after the other inserting their cards and taking their cash, no-one seemingly being offered postmodernist literary analyses. Once I stood there for a full hour, looking to see how the ATM could have done what it did. Was there some kind of trapdoor in the front where a miniature literature professor could have gained entry or hidden cameras beaming images to some control room somewhere where a team of academics examined users’ faces on flickering screens and doled out pertinent literary analyses? But instead, people simply stood in line like supplicants, only for their devotion to the machine in the wall to be rewarded with cash, nothing else, just crisp bank notes which were quickly gathered and then pocketed by the grateful flock.
So even after what had happened I was still a little surprised when the next time I used the ATM, after inserting my card, the simple message, “Do you want the truth?” appeared on the grimy screen, underneath it the options, Varnished or Unvarnished. But after I pressed the latter button and the machine whirred and then spat forth its slip of paper I read its message with a sense of profound awe as I saw the reality of It All.
The machine simply gave people what they wanted –advice, literary theses, existential Enlightenment; it was just dumb luck and limited perspective that meant that what most people who queued for an audience with it were interested in was money. So once I had seen the Truth, I sat on the pavement in supplication next to the machine, its disciple – no, its Apostle, giving it a voice beyond what could be expressed on the screen. And as pilgrims line up before it seeking a boon, I encourage them to seek more, to give up their devotion to worldly things, to expect more than just cold, hard cash, for they will receive it. I have been here so long now my sodden clothes are rotting off my body but still I urge the users of the machine to give away their money, even a pound, even a pound will do.
They glimpse at me with disgust before cold eyes stare ahead and they try their best to ignore me.
James Burr has had a couple of one-minute stage-pieces staged by SLAMX in London in February and had many short stories published in journals and anthologies, including Bizarro Central, Horror Sleaze Trash, decomP, Suspect Thoughts, Darkness Rising, Raw Edge, Ellipsis and Ideomancer. His first collection of short stories, Ugly Stories for Beautiful People was published in 2007 and his second collection will be published by Nihilism Revised in the summer.”
Image via Pixabay