Deus in Machina
"Meet you in the pub in 10 minutes. Just gotta get some cash from the hole in the wall."
With those innocent words the nightmare began.
The dispenser was in the wall of the Post Office at the entrance to the Shopping Centre in a perfectly ordinary city centre. As I fed my card into the appropriate slot I caught a glimpse, from the corner of my eye, of a distressed looking woman waiting to use the machine after me: I turned to say I wouldn't be long, but found no-one there.
'Odd... Be seeing fairies next...'
Little whirrs and clicks told me that the machine liked the taste of my plastic. I tapped out my PIN and waited. And waited. I began to wonder if I'd mis-typed my number. I waited some more. The machine showed no sign of returning my card. I'd left cheque book at home. If the dispenser failed me - horrors! - I'd have to borrow money for a drink.
No, it was OK, little green words were appearing on the screen.
Are you the owner of this card? Yes
Was this some new scheme to identify the users of stolen cards? If so, I didn't think it was going to work... I pressed the button for Yes. New words appeared.
Are you now or have you even been a member of a subversive political party? Yes
'What the hell..?'
It wasn't April 1st. Perhaps the machine had been reprogrammed by someone with a sense of humour. A peculiar sense of humour.
I pressed for No. Immediately the words on the screen changed.
What is your ethnic origin? Caucasian
Mind your own business
All I wanted was some cash. Since when did that involve a Passport Office interrogation? I tapped the key for Alien, just to see what happened.
Vrg~xxgrk*/# glrk clicklitttltt( \*
Erk! I frantically pressed the bottom option, and breathed a sigh of relief as the screen reverted to something at least superficially comprehensible. What it actually said was:
Are you a high-ranking member of the USAF? Yes
I opted for the truth this time. I could just imagine a pair of hairy US marines leaping out to arrest me if I claimed I was!
Congratulations! You have just won this handsome Sun Lounger!
The screen flickered into a full colour ad of an impossible blonde with elephant's graveyard teeth - and ribs to match - sprawled on a sickly pink and yellow contraption that looked rather more dangerous than an unexploded mousetrap.
I could feel my nerves unravelling. There would have been a queue behind me by now, except that everyone who approached took one look at what the machine was doing and decided to find a safer - and saner - one elsewhere. I just wanted my card back. Then I could go and join them. I tried one last time, pressing a shaking finger to the button marked Help.
How would you like your cash? Dollars
In desperation, I tried pressing Cancel. Flames appeared around the edge of the screen.
THAT WAS VERY SILLY. NOW I'LL HAVE TO TERMINATE YOUR ACCOUNT...
As I backed away, the machine exploded.
I came to in the General Hospital, swathed to the eyes in bandages and clutching my - completely undamaged - cashcard. The wounds were only superficial, and I was home again in a couple of days.
I was afraid to try the card again, so presented my cheque book at my bank.
The teller gave me a strange look. She called the manager. The manager looked at my cheque book, then at the computer screen, then at me. He invited me in to his office.
"This is all rather odd." he said, handing me a cup of coffee."I admit it is one of our cheque books. Also one of our cheque cards. But we have no record of you ever having had an account with us."
I felt my jaw sag.
"But I've been with you for years! My wages only went into the account a week ago! What's happened to my money?"
He looked embarrassed, and avoided my eyes.
"We will, of course, run a full investigation."
"What am I supposed to do in the meantime?"
"Well... You could always open an account with us. A new one, I mean."
"What with? You've already got all my money!!"
"Er... Now, please be reasonable. I am trying to help."
"You're not making a very good job of it!" I took a couple of deep breaths and tried to calm down. "Is there somebody higher I could speak to?"
Well, I tried. I spoke to the bank's Head Office. They denied my existence. So did my work's Pay Group. And the Social. And the DVLA. My records had been wiped from every computer system in the land. Oh, I fought. I shouted, wrote nasty letters, even tried to involve my MP, to no avail. I was a Non-person.
What finally made me give up was when I went to Somerset House to find my birth registration. It wasn't there. Officially, I did not exist.
And in a little while I will physically not exist. I have nothing left, and the metereologists are promising a long, hard winter.......
Joules Taylor, 1997 (© 1999 WordWrights.)