COLUMN: February 21, 2013

I HAVE written before about my complicated relationship with vending machines, but they still exist and we cannot ignore this, so I intend to revisit the topic today.

I fancied a Picnic some time ago. I am not sure why, perhaps I felt like a challenge, for Picnics are among the most difficult snacks to tackle. The peanuts get stuck in one’s teeth and are then lodged there, seemingly forever, by the improbably chewy and persistent caramel toffee. Combine this with the crunchy wafer, nougat, puffed rice and squishy raisins, and it’s a wonder that one’s poor teeth know what to do.

And the chocolate coating, presumably embarrassed by association with the shambles, tries to make a break for it, shattering and ending up all over one’s trousers.

It is almost as if the entire Picnic were designed by a sadist.

And this must have been a sadist who was completely unfamiliar with the concept of a picnic. I have never been on a picnic in which the basket was opened and somebody said: “I can’t believe you’ve forgotten the nougat and puffed rice.

“What sort of picnic is this, you total amateur?”

I am starting to feel a little sorry for the Picnic’s inventor now. No wonder he wanted to punish the world.

Somebody should have taken him on an actual picnic as a child and then he would have felt loved, and the Bad Thing that happened to me would not have happened.

So, the Bad Thing . . . I had to go to a vending machine to get my Picnic. I’m sorry if you’re a food fascist and that offends you. It is not my fault they don’t do macrobiotic and organic seed health biscuits in vending machines. I didn’t decide that the canteen should not have a permanent farmers’ market in the corner. I am as much a victim of the 21st century as you.

I dropped a shiny pound coin in the slot, but it did not clunk or chink. When one drops money into the slot of a vending machine, there are three noises it can make: the Clunk, which means that one’s money has been accepted; the Chink, which means the money has not been accepted for some reason – I don’t know, because it’s new, or it’s Tuesday, or something – and has fallen through to the change tray; and the Deathly Absence of Sound, which means the money is in a sort of limbo, Schroedinger’s slummy.

Perturbed by the Deathly Absence of Sound, but prepared to deal with that in a moment, I shifted over to the adjoining machine to get a can of fizzy pop.

Yes, I’m sorry again, food fascists, I didn’t have ready access to freshly-pressed parsnip and apple juice.

And as I bent over to shove my arm in and help the machine give birth to my can, somebody – a contractor in overalls – approached the first vending machine, dropped in a clunking coin, and swiped a Snickers. I heard the heavy fall of cash, and knew my pound must have been released.

But then the man scooped up the change and made to walk away.

“Hey, mate,” I said. He turned and dropped the coins into his pocket. I heard the jingle as they hit other money already waiting there. “I think you’ve taken my change.”

“No, I’ve just bought this.” He waved his Snickers at me, in a Freudian gesture.

“I know, but the thing is, I put my money in and I didn’t have a Clunk, and I got a drink, and you came in mid-transaction,” I explained. Possibly inadequately.

“Are you serious?” he asked. Now, that was a question.

“It’s on CCTV,” I replied, pointing at the camera. It was a desperate act, admittedly. I couldn’t imagine actually troubling the security guards to go through the footage. On the other hand, it WAS a quid.

“Fine!” the man huffed. He took a pound out of his pocket and slapped it into my palm, then he turned and strode away.

“Blimey,” I thought. “I could get used to this new assertive attitude of mine.”

Then I heard the Chink. I turned around. A shiny pound coin had landed in the change tray. My shiny pound coin.

After that, it becomes a bit of a blur. I know I found the man and I definitely gave him his pound back, but I don’t remember what I said to him, or what he said to me.

I just know it was no picnic.

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