By Elizabeth Collis
First published in Progenitor Art and Literary Journal 2022 v.57
Two weeks into my first year of university, you’d have thought my degree was in crying. I splashed in homesickness, swam through the guilt of leaving my dad with my ailing mum, floundered out of my depth among my bright, socially-adept peers. Most—unlike me—didn’t actually have to live on their miniscule student grants.
I was sobbing in the residence’s laundry room because I didn’t have enough coins for my wash. A thin hand slid in front of me and dropped something into the empty coin groove. It clanged its way in, and the washing machine chugged into action. The same hand then transitioned to my shoulder with comforting pressure. Julian had claimed me before I’d even seen his face—rescued me like I was some abandoned mutt he’d picked out from the RSPCA, chosen because I was the most pathetic and therefore the one he could do most with.
His family owned a laundromat chain, and he had these universal tokens which operated the machines for free. They were plastic, made to resemble ten pence coins. I never worked out how they functioned, I think I didn’t really want to know. Julian could feed one into any vending machine, get what he wanted, and the token magically dropped into the change bowl. The reusable tokens were his party trick, pick up line, and ticket to popularity, all in one. The discs had multiple uses: they got free cigarettes and chocolate bars; condoms for the lads, tampons for the girls; songs out of jukeboxes; access to the Underground; and best—and this overrode my qualms in the end–calls home from the coin-operated residence phone, as often and as lengthy as I wanted.
I always told my mum and dad I was ringing from a friend’s flat, and so there was no clang of ten pence coins falling into the machine every few minutes. Maybe they had doubts, but they had other worries. Treatments, diagnoses, fears—mainly that mum’s sickness would lead me to abandon my studies and come home. I cried after every call, but I never let Julian see my tears, they upset him.
Julian wanted a joyful accomplice, so that’s what I became. I revelled in the thrill of petty crime and Julian’s attention. My shame about that year with Julian still sits like a diving weight in my gut. And yet even now, in humdrum middle-age, I sometimes long for the seduction of stealing.
Thieving with Julian was so much like having sex with him. We’d start with foreplay. Enigmatic smiles, raised eyebrows, whispered suggestions for what to try next. I would stand next to Julian in front of the vending machines, making my selection, while he fed the token in at the top and retrieved it from the bottom. I’d feel his body shake with pleasure, see his pulse thump against his temples, watch a suppressed smile quiver under his boney nose. He smelled like the electric, pungent air before a lightning storm.
Afterwards, we released into sweet calm and innocent student activities, until succumbing to the urge again. Conscience could not stop something so good, though I knew what we were doing was the opposite of good.
Julian said we’d go to Europe for the summer to try the token in the slot machines in Monte Carlo. His eyes shone at the idea, as if they already reflected the flashing slot machine lights. I’d never crossed The Channel, let alone been to a casino. I put my only suitable dress into a backpack and off we went. It didn’t matter that I needed to work all summer to support myself, or that Dad hinted Mum was declining fast.
For three weeks, we swept through France and Italy and hawked the cigarettes we’d pilfered to fellow backpackers—adrenaline made Julian restless. Whenever I managed to jam the token in a public phone to ring my parents, we were rushing somewhere, and we never had a proper conversation. They didn’t even know I was travelling; I told them I was working at a summer camp in Bognor Regis.
In an Italian piazza, Julian paced outside the phone booth while I dialled home. When Dad told me the news, my eyes blurred so suddenly I fumbled the token. The phone beeped at me to be fed or I’d get cut off, and I slapped in panic on the glass door, calling for Julian to help me, help me; my mum was dead. There was no hiding these tears. They inundated me with remorse that I had squandered the last year of my mother’s life playing fetch for my master.
Julian rang my dad back and told him I was coming home. Then he scooped the token from the change chute and jammed it in the top slot where it bent and stuck with jarring finality. That meant free calls until the phone company worked it out. The machine would register the coin feed as constantly full. It was the only time I saw Julian give with no expectation of anything in return.
Mum saved me from Julian by dying. That autumn, I transferred to a university closer to home and Dad. I didn’t feel the need to be adopted again. Just yesterday, I saw Julian for the first time in thirty-five years, on TV—a white-collar fraudster sentenced to eleven years in prison.
I recognized the choppy line of his mouth, the kink in his nose, the shadowed forehead. His wife stood behind him, drained and owl-eyed. She never worked out how their life functioned. They have three children. I leaned forward into my hands, searching for apology in Julian’s hooded eyes, and found that my cheeks were wet. My life since Julian has been productive and upstanding, if ordinary. At first I thought I was weeping for his family; I should have been. But as my tears welled and flowed, stinging and unstoppable, I knew that I wasn’t.