The Vending Machine
How the Victorian middle-class had babies in a retro-futuristic world (short story)
“Isn’t it a sight.” Augustus swallowed a silent sigh as he turned to his wife who had stalled a few paces behind him upon entering the 'Delivery Room'. “Clem?” he paused as he noticed the glint of a tear in his wife’s eye.
He stood in silence and watched her for a moment as she stared fervently at the wonder before them. Augustus removed his hat and reached out for his wife’s hand. “Are you ready, darling?” he asked.
Clementine blinked a smile to her valentine-red lips, “I’ve been waiting for this day my entire life, Gus.” she said, as she gave his rough hand a tight squeeze. She dabbed her eyes with her dainty fingertips before reaching into her purse. She pulled out the large copper coin they had traded their life savings for at the bank earlier that morning and paused before handing it over. “This is really it.” She beamed.
Augustus looked down at the hefty coin in his hand as if ten ton of metal weighed down on his shoulders. He inhaled a long, deep breath, the kind that hurts as it hits the bottom of your stomach and stretches your insides like an over-full vacuum bag. He managed a half smile at his adoring wife before releasing his breath discreetly and turned toward The Vending Machine.
It looked exactly as he imagined it. Steely, mechanical and … inhuman.
A series of inter-working cogs trailed up the right-hand side from the bottom of the casing right to the top. Copper-coloured pipes spiralled around the outsides, all twisted and entwined, like the branches of the mechanical Tree of Life.
He let out another heavy sigh. Augustus has always been a traditionalist. Never in a million years would he have thought he’d be standing in this very room, in front of the very thing that questioned all his moralistic beliefs but his wife’s happiness meant the world to him. Watching Clem go through all those years of trying had killed him slowly inside and he was willing to try anything. Anything but ... this.
Thumbing the jagged edges of the coin, Augustus inched closer to the insert hole. Lifting it carefully, he lined up the grooves of the coin with that of the machine and meticulously slid it inside the slot. Using both hands he grabbed the giant brass wheel and turned it a half-turn clockwise until it clicked. A deafening clunk echoed off the walls of the small room as a voice in his head told him to stop but it was too late - something had started within the machine. What exactly was causing the noise, he couldn’t quite see as the theatrical style velvet-red curtains covering the front glass were closed. He turned to his wife. She was glowing, her almond-brown eyes full of warmth and excitement.
“Gus, you’re shaking?,” she said, placing her dainty hands over his wide-white knuckles. “I’m here with you, we’ll do this together.”
And with her hand guiding his, they began to finish the full turn. The coin dropped down. The seed planted. And no quicker than it hit the bottom, a gush of steam flushed up through the pipes and exploded out of the top showering them both in a clear, misty residue. “Did you feel that, Gus? That’s it,” Clem squealed, “…that’s the water's gone ...” Gus wiped his sticky brow and couldn’t be sure if it was the waters or his own sweat that came off on his sleeve. There was a screech. Then the sound of metal clanking and contracting which grew louder and louder. The curtains twitched. Gus looked at Clem. Clem looked at Gus. Then, with each new clank the curtains cranked wider and wider. This process was over in a matter of minutes compared to the contractions of a traditional birth. Gus could see the delight on Clem’s face, “... and it doesn’t hurt one bit.” She grinned and clapped her hands together repeatedly like a reveller at her favourite theatre performance.
At the sound of the last crank, the pair’s attention was drawn in unison to the revelation behind the glass screen. Their jaws dropped. The curtains had been hiding rows upon rows of body parts. There was a row for feet, legs, torsos, arms, hands and finally, heads. Heads of baby dolls with fearfully lifelike faces. One row for girls, another for boys, each with their eyelids closed. Dormant, they waited for someone to come and take them home. Clementine clasped her hands together tightly as she gasped. “Ohh just look at them Gus,” she cried, “how can we possibly pick just one?”
"How can we possibly pick any?" The thought left his ginger moustached lips before he could catch himself. He twiddled a piece of hair between his thumb and forefinger as he often did when waiting for tongue-lashing. Clem however, seemingly ignored his comment and rushed to the ‘Selective Controls’ panel like an excited girl playing on one of those new teddy grabber machines you see in places like Whitstable for a penny-farthing a go.
“Can I push the buttons?” she asked in a very telling kind of tone.
“As long as you select a head off the boy row.” If he had to have one of those things in his house, it may as well make itself useful, he thought.
“But you know how I feel about having a daughter of my very own.” Clem begged.
Gus knew full well he didn’t really have a say in the matter. He wondered if the machine held an adult-sized backbone on one of it’s many rows.
“Gussss!” He flinched at the sound. “That one. I want her.” Clem tapped at the glass frantically the way you see people do to the fish tanks at the aquarium. “She blinked Gus, she opened her eyes!”
“Don’t be ridiculous, they’re all dormant.” he snapped.
“I swear it she did, she looked at me, she wants me to take her home and I’m having her.”
And with that, Clementine hastily fingered at the buttons on the selective control panel quicker than Gus could stop her and the cogs started turning once more.
“Clem, stop!” He wedged himself between his wife and the machine blocking her view, “You’re not thinking clearly darlin’, it must be the stress of the room.”
She pushed him to the side, “Augustus Browning, do not insult me. That girl opened her eyes and we are taking her home.”
The machine started to whizz and tick. Big bellowing burps of steam escaped from the top of the pipes as the assembly process began.
“Why is it going so fast?” Gus raised his voice to be heard over the grinding gears and all of a sudden he was reminded of the meat-packing factory he worked in.
Clem marvelled at the sight as each row cranked a limb forward. Clem had chosen the head first, she was careful to hit that button; number four, which corresponded to the number above the blinking girls’ head. She hadn't, however, been so careful about selecting the rest of her new daughter’s body.
Long mechanical grabbers pinched around each limb as it selected them and dropped them into the Assembly Chamber. The machine grounded to an abrupt halt and the pair gasped.
“Clem, what have you done?” His wife didn’t seem capable of mustering up the courage to speak, or rather she was just in shock. “Clem … it's got three legs!”
Clem turned to face Augustus, but before she could let out any words, the cogs started spinning, setting the giant grabbing arm into motion as it clasped around the automation-dolls body.
“Aaaaaargh!” Clem gasped in horror as her baby fell towards the Birth Canal with a clunk. “She’s stuck.” she cried.
“IT can stay there.”
“Poor Winnie … Gusss get her out!”
“Winnie?” Gus rolled his eyes. “Don’t name it - you’ll get too attached and we are not keeping it.”
Clem hushed him and lunged for the big red button on the wall next to the machine.
The alarm was deafening.
The machine maintenance officer was a burly man, his protruding stomach entered the room before he did and he almost got stuck between the swing doors as he burst through. He wore a brown leather belt with all kinds of tools poking out the top.
“Okay,” he said, “let’s see what we have here.” Breathlessly he skulked up to the vending machine and perched the tiny round spectacles that hung by a chain around his neck onto the end of his nose. “Hmm,” he sniffed peering into the glass, “How peculiar.”
“Can you fix her?” Clem asked with a promising tone.
“Fix? Noooo.” He replied without turning to address her. “I’m afraid you get what you create.” He twiddled a little dial on the wall next to the alarm and spoke into the funnel next to that. “Nurse Ada, bring the forceps.”
“Don’t worry Mrs Browning, we’ll get her out, you just relax now.”
“I need to sit down,” she said fanning her face with her gloves, “I feel awfully dizzy.”
Nurse Ada came tinkering into the room with much more style and grace than the officer, despite pushing the huge metal pincers on wheels.
The maintenance officer clicked his fingers. “Nurse, a chair.” He pointed to Clem who was now looking rather grey in the face.
“Clem,” Gus said gently as nurse Ada guided his wife to the seat, “we’re not keeping it.”
“I’m afraid you’ll have to,” the officer placed the contraption nurse Ada had wheeled in, in front of the opening and turned a hand-wheel vigorously. “You’ve already signed the paperwork.”
Suddenly, there was a pop, followed by the sound of an activated baby with a deafening cry. The burly officer held up the jerking, squirming doll as the room began to spin.
“Nurse Ada” he clicked and pointed to Gus… “I believe we’re going to need another chair!”