When I was eight the big deal about swimming in the local baths was not about swimming in the local baths it was about the vending machine. The Metal Emperor of chocolate. The Metal Mickey of salt.These push button vending machines were the pin ball machines of the future. Not the push and shove mechanisms of the early seventies and sixties. Oh no. We’re talking plastic keypads and corkscrew plastic. In the vague emotional places of childhood, mostly unreachable, there is one plastic button labelled “A10.” That button that leads to the “Wagonwheel,” the marshmellow and biscuit snack five times rounder and larger than a small boys mouth. “A10” was a time when the mystery of letters and numbers had yet to be explained. When it was supernatural that ABC and 123 added up to the sweet and now. And if I want to conjure up the excitement of a humid lobby, the sting of chlorine, a five pence piece in a five pence hand and the anticipation of chocolate and wafer not yet coal tar on the tongue, I think “A10,” and slowly, inexorably, the memory unwinds from the dark reaches of the unknown past and lands with a satisfying “clunk” in the out-tray of my heart.
Now when I go swimming in the local swimming baths I never go to the vending machine. I tried it. They had a different numbering system, no letters, no Wagonwheels. Every single item was available to me. The whole machine could have been mine by extending my credit at the local cashpoint and topping up my rucksac. There was no single button labelled “A10” there was just one large dumpertruck labelled “Everything”.
So I carry around “A10” in the inside pocket of my life. At train station platforms, at hospital foyers, at ferry port terminals, the glowing maw of the “other” machines beckon. But I know there will be no button to the past. I know that “A10” is best pressed with eyelids closed, best tasted in dreams unwoken, best thought of when sliding poetry books under unmarked doors.
Vending machine technology didn’t change that much. But they went and changed the goddam letters. And now everything can be bought with a language that makes far too much sense.
All those comics and sci-fi books were right. Machines did take over the world. And they just keep on selling. Selling. Selling.
I’m hanging on to my five pence piece. It’s mine. Mine you hear me. Burning hot silver in my ungrown hand.