The Machine Below
by Christian J. Simpson
part 1 of 2
‘See this bit ’ere?’
Paul looked at the part in the machine where the engineer’s grubby finger jabbed.
Paul’s shrug was purposefully ambiguous.
‘Well that’s the cutting edge intelligence unit, the ingenious bit...’ and the engineer continued to talk, a man possessed by passion, compelled by this thing that only he — with his experience, his interests, his brain — could at that moment be excited by.
But Paul was cold and did shiver as he recalled this; he wanted to go indoors to sit on the recently delivered long grey sofa and ponder the piece of artwork he’d hung from his wall, so much wanting to appreciate and therefore enjoy it.
And thus his own thoughts turned inward as the young service engineer spoke diode-this and transistor-that, because after weeks of passing documents back and forth, signing paperwork, hushed phone calls taken hunkered over his office phone, fraught consideration going on late into the night, finally the building he stood below in the autumnal cold was his.
And he adored his new home, felt that it was heaven-inspired, decorated as it was in pale pastel colours, minimalist practical furniture, ultra-modern fixtures and fittings. Surely it was the pinnacle of all design, the fruition of man’s long march towards paradisiacal abodes.
The house was fully teched-out: if his eggs were bad, his fridge sent a message to his phone. If his hallway caught a chill, the thermostat clicked on there and nowhere else. If the maid overfilled his underwear drawer, it beeped at her until she took out a pair or two of briefs.
Despite the plethora of wonder-stuff the house had to offer, it was how the estate agent had made a big deal about the waste disposal system that Paul recalled most clearly now months later. He had said, ‘There isn’t one like it in any house close by, I can assure you.’ He added in awe, ‘It will sort and recycle 99% of all your household waste. Think about that!’
He had spoken about the machine with eyes that sparkled with moisture and he had turned away, looked at the machine with his brow furrowed sage-like, his hands clasped before him as though in meditation. Later Paul pinpointed this as the moment his decision had been made — the circuitry in his brain switched then fused to ‘I want it.’
* * *
Of course he wanted to enjoy his new home, because it had taken a great deal of sacrifice in order to afford such a lavish luxury. As soon as he had accepted that it would be his, he had begun the long and convoluted process of siphoning off funds from the company he worked for. And it had been a torture, of sorts, watching the money mount up terribly slowly in his hidden bank account whilst hoping no one else would see the house and purchase it before he had chance to.
And now that it was his, irritatingly, he found it incomplete. The malfunctioning machine strained his patience as it thwarted his best intentions. It held domain over his thoughts; its inactivity antagonised him.
‘But there’s nowt wrong with that bit there, so honestly I’m at a loss for what could be wrong with it, mate,’ the fluff-chinned technician said as his small wrench swung from his little finger.
Paul explained, again, that the waste sorter, compactor — whatever he wanted to call it — was not working, had not been working since he moved in two days before.
‘You sure you’re dropping the trash down the chute?’ the young man asked, and Paul — not known for his patience — sighed, pulled a pack of cigarettes from his pocket and prepared one for ignition. Of course he’d dropped the bags down the garbage chute; where else could he have dropped them? Paul exhaled smoke and scowled at the back of the young man as he climbed back up the step ladders, into the belly of the sleeping metal beast.
The engineer emitted a startled yelp followed by a series of grunts. Paul asked if something was wrong. The young man was stuck. He asked, ‘Can you pull me out, mate? My ’and’s got caught.’
Paul climbed up the ladders and rather testily, perhaps too forcefully, grabbed the man’s ankle, then tugged and tugged and tugged.
The man, who seemed to be in some pain by this point, screamed: ‘Stop! Arragghhh!’ but in the next moment the ladders had toppled and clattered below. Paul, to save himself, clung onto the man’s leg and swung forward and back, until the engineer came free and they fell to the hard floor below.
Paul regained his feet and, as he dusted himself down, he lectured the stupid young man: he could have caused them both severe injury. ‘It’s a long fall from that bloody hatch,’ he said, but the man continued to scream, curse and cry, and when Paul looked at the heap on the floor — really looked at him — something didn’t seem quite right.
Perturbed and put-out, Paul looked the garage over, looked for a light switch he had yet to throw, needing illumination to discover why the man was screaming and wailing, clutching at himself, rolling over the concrete floor like an errant hotdog.
Paul noticed a switch on a metal box that he hadn’t seen before. It didn’t resemble a light switch at all; it looked more like it turned off/on something far more industrial in fact. He approached it and turned it at the very moment the man on the floor cried out, ‘No!’
The machine rattled into life, and Paul searched the wall desperately, looking for the actual light switch. He found it, but only after the machine had stopped its function. With the light on bright and florescent, he could see prostrate form of the engineer, blood all around him, passed out, gripping his right wrist where his hand should have been.
Paul heard a rattle, turned to the machine in time to see a cube pop from below it and roll down a chute into the waiting red bin, ‘Pig Feed’ stencilled bold upon its side.
* * *
Immediately after this incident the machine worked well and continued to work well for a number of days thereafter. It wasn’t until a week later that a problem manifested: Paul dropped in a vegetable lasagne he had half-eaten. It slid into the machine, and remained there untouched.
After this, the machine seemed to pick and choose which bags of trash it would consume and which it would not. Paul dropped bags in: when nothing happened, he would fish them out with a mop handle and drop them in again and again until he lost his temper, effused expletives until he had exhausted all that were possible, then would collapse onto his sofa, turn on the sports and pretend the machine did not really exist.
As the days fell, it happened more frequently until every sack he dropped in would be met by the same indifference. Eventually, time after time, he’d drop rubbish in, would wait, obsessing, would beg the sensors to activate: ‘Dear machine, please tear and churn, sort the metals from plastics, card from paper, food from glass.’ But the coloured bins waited, empty. The machine remained silent, ignorant, cruel, neglecting.
He called the people who had made it, this perfect machine for this modern age. The lady who answered had missed her dinner and, as he tried to express his dissatisfaction with the machine, he heard her teeth crunch sinew and grind against bone. He continued, tried to have himself heard: ‘The machine, it’s not working,’ he said again and again until she lost patience with his plaintive pleas.
Chicken remains were heard hitting card-bucket’s bottom as she released what remained of her feast in exasperation: Did he think he was the only one having problems with the blasted contraption? ‘They’re breaking down all over the country. You’ll just have to wait your turn,’ she said, curt and rude. He heard her licking her fingers before the call was purposefully ended.
Further calls yielded nothing further. No one would do anything to help. Perhaps they feared another engineer might lose another appendage. Perhaps these machines were far from being satisfactorily tested before being installed in the homes of the privileged. Perhaps the fact he was privileged meant the people on minimum wage with phone receivers strapped to their head were less likely to want to help him. The questions went round and round his head. The more he did to solve his problem, the more quandaries he found, and the more confounded he became!
Finally, and in desperation, perhaps recalling what had happened to the engineer’s hand, and feeling ridiculous, his cheeks flushed with foolishness, Paul took a raw chicken from his fridge, dropped it into machine’s chute/throat, whilst asking the machine loudly, half insane: Was it happy now that he had lost his mind and had fed it a chicken?
And when the machine whirred into life and devoured the chicken, it was the strangest thing: Paul couldn’t help feeling he had fixed the machine with his own bare hands.
* * *
Oh wonderful hindsight, how Paul had been blessed by her visit; for she’d lifted the veil of frustration as the machine chewed the chicken: of course: the machine was carnivorous! It was so obvious and made perfect sense, though, of course, it was as crazy as a man of importance within a financial institution believing he could fraudulently acquire large sums of money for his own personal disposal without being caught.
Paul dropped pork chops down the chute, then washed them down with a can of waste paper; gleefully, he threw in odd-smelling sausages with a handful of used teabags. He tossed in incriminating papers with a dead pig’s shoulder, and the machine ate them all greedily. And as long as it worked, his steps were somewhat lighter, his smile a little less forced. He ran his maid home one afternoon to spare her the cab fare and did not dock the fuel cost from her pay.
In his happiness, his daily commute from work became less arduous, he now spent the time daydreaming of his new abode, counting down the miles until he could walk around and look at everything one more time, satisfying an urge that was as old as he was, the same urge that had caused him to cast his eyes around his childhood bedroom at the newness of redecoration’s splendour. And it was this same simple pleasure — to see again and again something that made him happy — that caused him to view his online bank account whilst stopped in traffic. And it was this pastime that brought the first mental storm cloud into view.
Stopped, his car idling, his mobile phone seeming to gloat up from his hand, he discovered that feeding the machine — the ravenous beast below his home — had cost him a small fortune.
* * *
Copyright © 2014 by Christian J. Simpson