Misadventure: The can machine

When I was at middle school…

Actually, I need to start by explaining that a middle school is year 5 to year 8 in England, or age 9-13. Some areas still have them. The education system in Britain is fundamentally indefinable and since I went to 13 schools around the country, I sampled most variations.

Ok. Anyway.

When I was at middle school there was a can machine. If you came a long time before or after me, you might not know this, but schools used to have vending machines in them. Mostly drinks machines, sometimes chocolate machines. It was great. Sorry if you missed it. It was a snack golden age.

Ryecroft Middle School had a can machine. It sold cans of pop. Coke, diet coke, Dr. Pepper, Sprite and Fanta. I adored getting a drink at lunchtime, only popping it enough to sip through the metal top bit, to make it last until hometime. Dr. Pepper was my favourite. I remember going on a school trip to the high school this school fed into, and they had a drinks machine with cherry coke which I thought was the height of sophistication.

Cans were 40p. I rarely actually had 40p. We were flat broke as a family because my mum was in a wheelchair. So when I did have money, I frittered it on Dr. Pepper.

Usually, the only money I had was my coin collection of defunct shrapnel like giant 10p coins from pre-1992, and giant 5p coins from pre-1990. And half pence pieces that my stepdad used to steady his record player with. All beautiful, and fascinating to me, who loved knowing what came before the stuff we had now. But unspendable.

One day, I went to put one of my hard-won 20ps in the coin slot and it fell on the floor. Rolled under the machine! Nooooooo! So I crouched down and got it. And I was stunned. It was like the Nat West under this can machine.

Who were these people, who dropped money under the can machine and had so much money that they thought “I’ll leave it” instead of picking it up? Did they sit in my classroom? Did they wear real Kickers instead of the knock off ones I had, which said Red Rock on the front? I decided they had to get the bus home from school because no one got into a Rolls Royce at the end of the day.

More importantly, were they coming back for it and would I get into trouble if I took it? Technically, the area beneath the can machine was a grey area. No one left anything they wanted under a can machine. But didn’t everyone want their money? After thinking about this for all of five seconds I bought my own can, filed away the knowledge and went outside to find my best friend.

It was about a week later when I next wanted a can. I didn’t have any money because I only got pocket money if I both washed the dishes and recorded it on a sheet of paper hidden inside a cupboard door. This was an ADHD nightmare and meant, more often than not, I was washing up for nothing. Which fitted with all the other chores I did for zero pocket money: Laundry, cooking, making infinite cups of tea, dropping everything to pander to my mum’s latest explosion, looking after my sister, taking care of two dogs… the list was long enough to leave me with a lifelong Cinderella complex, if such a thing exists.

Anyway, I was thirsty. So I lined up at the can machine and, when I got to the front, I pretended I’d dropped my money. Crouched down and grabbed a dusty 50p. Perfect. Enough money for a can and change for a cup of tea at breakfast club in the morning.

Sipping on Dr. Pepper, I was pleased my plan had worked. But I knew the can machine’s piggy bank was finite. If I wanted to feed my Dr. Pepper habit, I’d need a more stable form of payment.

The next time I went to get money from beneath the can machine, I was thwarted. I pulled out something I immediately recognised: An old 10p. This one dated to the 1980s. For reasons unknown to me then or now, I put the money in the can machine. I think I was struggling to believe the can machine had been here since before 1992. So surely any money under the can machine must be accepted in it?

I pushed the big round coin into the black void, expecting it to tumble straight back into the bit at the bottom with the flap. But it didn’t. The display read .10.

It had accepted it! Old money fooled the can machine! A human would immediately know my money wasn’t legal tender but whenever they had updated the can machine to make it accept new money, they had never told it not to accept the old money. And I had loads at home.

For the next year and a half, I dipped into the old coins every time I wanted a Dr. Pepper. I was cautious not to do it too often. During this time, 50p coins were updated to a smaller version, too, which gave me more coins to use for my fizz habit.

Then, one day, I finished middle school and started high school. They had a new, top-of-the-range can machine. Drinks were 50p where they’d been 40p before. And this machine didn’t remember old 10ps, so it didn’t accept them.

So I kept my dinner money one day a week and bought a Kwik Save No Frills 6 pack of cola for £1 instead and hid them under my bed to stop my mum nicking them. If there was a lesson to be learned from this, I don’t know what it was, except that cheap, lukewarm cola tastes nothing like ice cold Dr. Pepper.

Last time I drove past my old middle school, it wasn’t a school anymore. I don’t know if you’ve ever had the odd sensation of seeing your old school not being exactly where you left it. It’s weird because as a child, schools seem like they will be there forever. My first thought was, I wonder what happened to the can machine.

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