.......The.........F a b u l o u s.




(A preposterous story)

It wasn't just  a fabulous fruit-machine, but the most fabulist fruit-machine in the world. Everyone acknowledged it, and knew it would be some time before an even better one could be made. Its inventor had worked on it for many years and had used the very latest technology in his final prototype.

For appraisal, the machine had been installed on a little pier in the remote seaside hamlet of M*. It replaced several other machines there, and was now the only one in town - and for some miles around. That was a condition of the owners: no competition for the season. And with the aid of suitable bribes, the local council had conceded. Another condition was that the machine came with its own exclusive security guard who was to attend the machine at all times. He was a massive brawny specimen with a petulant frown, which gave the impression that his mood might swing from composure to frenzy in an instant.

Once the machine was installed and the guard positioned comfortably on a chair beside it, the doors were opened and its first clients allowed in. On that first day, the price was only a penny a game so that anyone could afford as many goes as they liked. There was quite a crowd too. So the guard made his customers, which were all boys, line-up to take turns. As they played, he scrutinised their actions. And afterwards he gave an entry card to certain boys of whom he approved, saying that he would recognise them again so swapping or selling their card would be pointless. To alleviate their disappointment, those who were rejected ridiculed and dismissed the entire business as absurd and immoral. 

So it was that over the first month about twenty people came to know the machine. For most, this knowledge was superficial, while for several of the sharper clients - who had caught glimpses of some of the machine's special features, and the tantalising promise of more - it was a deeper, more intimate knowledge; and this, they recognised, would increase further once they learned how to solve the riddles posed as their playing became more skilled and involved.

Oddly, at this point, and at the express instruction of the guard, it was arranged that only one client should visit the machine at a time. So the room would be almost empty except for this huge, glittering, multi-coloured machine with its myriad of lights fading and brightening, blinking and flickering, and the spirals of revolving symbols shining and flashing in alternation, while the big burly guard grinned invitingly at whoever was playing.

'The Kiss' by Gustav Klimt + 'Marquis de Sade' by Man Ray

guardOnce the selected clients had grown accustomed to the machine and had become addicted to its enchanting ways - which constantly revealed new surprises and glimpses of hidden mysteries - the guard suddenly and unexpectedly increased the price. Now a strange kind of malicious smirk appeared on the guard's face as he watched his customers, one, and only one, at a time, as they played, increasingly enthralled by the machine's remarkable and slowly emerging qualities.

With the increased cost, many customers stopped coming, so there was now only one, two, three, maybe four customers - no-one but the guard knew precisely. Another curious change the guard made at this time was to organise things (especially around the entrance to the pier) so that each customer was led to believe that they were the only one, as though they and only they had been selected as adequately skilled at challenging the machine, while the rest of the time when that customer wasn't there no-one else, so it appeared, would visit.

  While several who were not ashamed of their addiction colluded with friends, a few suspected it was untrue and a trick, and considered that it would be naïve to suppose otherwise. Annoyed at this, most of these boys who had briefly tolerated the high price, now gradually drifted away to find alternative forms of leisure.

  It was though, for Simon, a boy slightly more sensitive than most, and whom the guard had occasionally winked at and had seemed to take a special liking to, as if the machine truly was for his use alone.

One day however, the guard let slip to Simon - as if to encourage him to polish his skills - that there was perhaps one other person, an older boy called Jasper, who apparently was more adept. And the more Simon visited, the more the guard mentioned Jasper until Simon was convinced that he was not the only client - though the guard invariably insisted he was.

It was around this time when the guard began restricting the play-time he allowed Simon. Now this - Simon reasoned - was because of Jasper. Why else, he thought? Furthermore, on most at his visits, the guard would only let Simon see the machine and would talk to him, sometimes consolingly, sometimes irritably. Simon had to watch what he said very carefully at such times, and assess the guard's mood. Then he might, just might, get to play the machine. And when he did, what new wonders and mysteries it revealed, what splendid magical puzzles it hinted at from its depths which would perhaps come fully to light if only he could get to practice more and get to know the machine better.

There were many levers and buttons on the machine. Simon knew how to use most of them. There were some, though, whose function he hadn't yet quite fathomed. Two of these buttons, Simon knew, had the words: 'Enchanted Kingdom' emblazoned above them - though the words had become visible only three times when he'd played, and the lights illuminating them had extinguished before he'd had a chance to consider what to do next or even to hit one of the buttons. But he knew the option was there, and he agonised over what it might do, where it might lead him.

After racking his brains for a week, he resolved to ask the guard. Timidly, he approached the imposing figure, for even in his chair the guard towered above him like a great statue.

'Excuse me, Mr Guard.' Said Simon, quivering with fear, 'W…What is the enchanted kingdom like?'

The guard at first gave a look of horror as if to suggest that the boy had overstepped his position to address him with such a question. Then he slowly raised his eyebrows, adjusted his posture and replied in a deep rasping voice, which seemed to emanate from inside a cave:

"To enter the kingdom is just the beginning."

And nervously Simon had stepped daringly forward slightly and said: "The… beginning of what?"

Then the guard had leaned forward, taken a breath and bellowed: "The beginning of the wildest adventure imaginable, of which there are many - depending on who is playing and how skilfully they play," Then, after a deathly pause that made Simon shudder, the guard leaned back again and added quickly in a softer yet still very nasty conceited tone, "But I am going beyond my duty to tell you that. Now leave us."

This was but one of a multitude of strange ambiguities that tormented Simon, but he dared not ask anything more on that occasion - nor for some time afterwards because of the way the guard always seemed to scowl at him, sometimes even before he had opened his mouth.

There was no doubt that Simon had fallen for the machine. After all, it did actually seem to speak to him in a language all of its own, which Simon felt he understood and was becoming increasingly more fluent in. It had performed wonders sometimes when he'd played and had sent shivers of delight down his spine.

Often, he had felt on the brink of breaking through to the enchanted kingdom, but for some reason never quite managed it because he had not noticed soon enough and had responded too slowly - or, worst of all, because the guard had suddenly intervened and drawn the session to a close. That was whenever he had been so spellbound by the possibilities he glimpsed that his legs had weakened and he had hardly been able to remain upright; then he had noticed the guard shift on his chair and a twinkle appear in his eyes as though preparing to make a decision. Then soon afterwards - to Simon's acute dismay - the guard had concluded the game, saying that that was enough, that the machine needed a rest, and it was time for Simon to leave.

  Specifically at such times, the machine and he had seemed to be at one, blended together, one mind with the other, as though - he had secretly told himself - they were actually made for each other. He knew with certainty that if only the guard would let him, he could - as he reasoned it - make the machine truly happy, make it dance. Not that he thought a machine could actually be happy - nor that it didn't, in a sense, dance already - but he would make it Dance with a capital D. And he would dance with it. He had several times hovered, as it were, on the cusp; and the machine had behaved exactly as if it genuinely enjoyed his special way of playing it, had seemed to lead him on, to encourage, challenge, taunt and cajole him. What fantasies he conjured about how the machine felt, how it regarded him - assuming it was capable of regarding its player. Then he would think: "But how can a machine feel... though it can, I'm sure of it. Well," he would continue to reason in his mind, "they talk about artificial intelligence, and this machine is certainly intelligent. It has a mind of its own and never performs precisely the same way twice, and it definitely likes me - no doubt about it. If only I could reach those hidden dreamscapes, those enchanted kingdoms…"

Even when the guard refused to let him play, Simon still spent a lot of money, giving it to the guard in the hope that he might let him play. But gradually, over the weeks, the guard became less and less agreeable, always taking the money but increasingly denying Simon access. Sometimes, Simon was permitted to touch the machine's sumptuous casing, but eventually even that was denied him - except on rare occasions when the guard happened to be in very good mood. And then Simon had to be most careful how he addressed the guard and what he said generally.

Now, in his effort to try and persuade the guard, Simon began taking gifts as well as money. He took him food and drink, always his favourites, and all kinds of presents. None of this, however, was to any avail. The guard still flatly refused to let Simon go near the machine he had now so hopelessly taken to.

This went on for more than a month and Simon was almost in despair. How he dreamed of all the amazing secrets the machine held in store and had yet to reveal. He imagined it would take a whole lifetime to uncover all those secrets buried in its depths. It was a difficult time for Simon. He spent all his money on the guard, even borrowing and getting into debt with friends just for a mere glimpse of the incredible machine. And when he did get a chance to see it, the machine seemed to flash its lights in a certain way as if to say: "…come on, come and play me, look how fabulous I am, how enchanting, how gorgeous, and totally unique." But the guard, as though either flexing his malicious nature or else expecting some remarkable words of genius from Simon, kept him at a distance and only snarled when he approached as if he were intending to touch the plush black velvet casing without the guard noticing.

So Simon sunk all his money into it, or rather, into bribing the guard. And for a long time yet the guard kept Simon on the verge of not quite knowing whether or when he would be allowed to play once more.

Then suddenly, after those long depressing weeks of deprivation, the guard called out to him as he approached. In an almost pleasant voice, he invited Simon to play - on the condition that he give the guard a quite large sum of money - which was much more than Simon could really afford. So Simon took out a bank loan and brought the money, and with a thrill of anticipation he handed it over.

This was the most sensational event Simon could have hoped for. He would never forget the games of that afternoon. The machine performed superbly as before, not its best perhaps for he was a little out-of-practice, but superbly all the same. And, to his delight, more amazing new magic was exposed to him.

A week later after paying another considerable sum to the guard - which again Simon could not afford - he played again. What a revelation, what joy, what ecstasy - even if he was a bit rusty and the event was less engrossing than it had been months before. But now he was learning again and improving all the time. How he had missed the machine, had pined for it, begged in his heart to play it just one more time. And there he was again, playing it - not brilliantly perhaps - but playing it all the same. And playing this machine poorly was to him equivalent to an alcoholic drinking poor quality spirit after a long time without any - in other words the quality was not so very important because he was again experiencing that bliss which only the machine could provide: and deprivation had taught him to appreciate far more those rare moments he was now being allowed in sudden abundance.

How he struggled to regain his former prowess, striving to play as well as possible and as near as he could to how he thought the machine would want him to play - working with it, being guided by its responses. His challenges were calculated to make it 'think' and work - which it seemed to enjoy the more the harder he made it. He could tell this by the way it flashed and blinked, the various synchronisation of patterns in the lights and sounds, the unending variety of changing symbols, whirling fast then slow as he plunked away at the buttons, and the melodies - which he had also learned were an important guide - rang out in crescendos that grew increasingly complex and beguiling until finally they would merge into a single mesmerising crash. So many subtle cascading notes to remember and react to, every tiny light and sound, brightness and volume, all were significant. How could he do other than everything possible to please the machine so that the guard, noticing all this - for he noticed everything like a hawk - might be impressed and take pity on him and even begin to like him again. And then maybe, if Simon was extremely lucky, the guard would invite him to again play and again, and even maybe as often as he used to because he could see that Simon was doing his utmost to inspire and charm the machine, make it tingle, take it into new vistas that even the guard had not foreseen.

On this, as on other occasions, the machine certainly flashed, faded and brightened its lights as if gladdened by Simon's playing. And then afterwards, to Simon's immense delight, the guard promised that if he should come along in three days he would let him play not only for the whole afternoon but every day after into the future, until the end of the season, and without interference - if only he would get money now. Again, Simon's heart swelled at this prospect, which he had hoped for more than anything in the world. "Money?" he thought, "What's money…? It is nothing." And he rushed off immediately, arriving back panting and coughing just in time to pay the guard before the pier closed. As the guard took the money, he grinned contentedly and repeated his promise - though in a strangely quite voice.

When Simon turned up on the appointed day, the guard at first ignored him and then under Simon's cautious prompting said he hadn't agreed anything of the sort. Poor Simon was horrified. Responding to his look of outraged astonishment, the guard added that if he had made some promise or other he definitely had no intention of letting Simon play that day. He could look at the machine, certainly, see its patterns of flickering lights and listen to the strange bewitching tinkling and jingling sounds it made which so captivated Simon and almost hypnotised him like when the lights whirled and spiralled around at their fastest - at least, the fastest Simon had seen them go - but look was all the guard would allow him to do.

Simon stood there bewildered, his eyes glazed and tearful. He was stunned. The guard would not even let him touch the casing: that unbelievable coating that felt like a blend between pure silk and well-cured leather (the sort used in the softest, most expensive furniture) which he longed to just brush with his fingertips. That would be enough, he thought, just with his fingertips; but the guard was, as always, alert and shooed him quickly away before Simon had a chance even to reach out.

This was agony, sheer agony. What could Simon do? He was broke - worse than broke because of his huge debts. He was suffering badly. He loved that machine with all his heart. He loved it more than he'd ever loved anything or anyone in his life before. As for him walking away from that most gorgeous, most sensational of machines - or rather of entities, for Simon no longer thought of it as a mere machine but as a thing with a soul, a creature with a mind and a life of its own (an inner life at any rate) - as for him walking away, there was no question: he knew that would take a momentous effort of will. And if he did manage to muster such will, it would probably mean he would never be able to visit the machine again. The guard, he thought, would no doubt resent him if he failed to keep up with his visits and gifts.

Even if better machines are made, he thought, they wouldn't be the same, they wouldn't have that, that... individuality, that persona, that marvelous unique quality displayed by this machine, as though it loved him too and no-one else - though he continued to wonder about Jasper who the guard had not mentioned for some while. But that peculiar glow which made the machine seem to laugh especially for him - a combined effect of light and sound all twirling and mingling in a particular way… to Simon this was heaven. And even the petulance and irritability of the guard, who was strictly part of it, had somehow forged a place now in Simon's heart.

One day, after the guard had allowed Simon to watch the machine for half-an-hour as it ticked-over, apparently talking and playing to itself, as always in new intriguing and fascinating ways, Simon - having generated the courage at last to confront the guard - suddenly turned to him:

  "Why don't you like me any more as you used to?"

  The guard looked up and without delay replied, this time in an indifferent voice, "Like you? What makes you think I don't like you? I like you the same as when you first came here. More in fact."

"Then why don't you let me play the machine, especially when I bring you so many gifts and give you money which I work hard all week for?"

"Oh, I'll let you play the machine again," said the guard in a dismissive, nonchalant tone, "Don't you worry about that."

"But why so long? And do you let Jasper play?"

"Jasper? I don't like Jasper." The guard looked down at his huge black-booted feet, "It's just that Jasper is a good player. But I don't like him."

"So," thought Simon, "it is true about Jasper."

  Then the guard looked up at him again and added, "But actually I like you a lot, and the machine needs a rest sometimes."

"When can I play the machine again?" Simon asked bleakly.

"Now you're making me dreary." Bellowed the guard, "And the machine... look at it, the lights have slowed now. So if you don't cheer up you'd better go."

"But what about all the money I've given you and you haven't let me play?" said Simon tearfully, "And the promises you've broken?"

"I said I'd let you play the machine again sometime. Isn't that enough?"

Now the tears were making it difficult for Simon to speak as he said, "How do I know you'll keep your word when you've broken it so often?"

"You'll just have to trust me," said the guard angrily, clearly unconcerned, "and keep supplying gifts when I ask for them. I have nothing more to say; now stop snivelling like a baby, and go away."

After a disorientated pause, Simon traipsed slowly away, his head down, his shoulders bent - he'd been going about with this posture for months. For the rest of the day he wandered along the seafront and around the town looking dejected and tired, not knowing where he was going or what he could do. How he missed that glorious machine. How he longed just to be near it. "Should I go along with the guard's wishes," he wondered, "can I trust him after all his betrayal and broken promises? He allows me a brief contact each time he thinks I'm about to decide never to return, apparently to keep me sweet, to keep me hoping for a game on the machine. And all the time he's taking advantage of me, of my weakness and fondness for the machine, of my being trapped by having fallen hopelessly in love with it. What should I do? I can't seem to live without it - at least, not without seeing it sometimes; and yet it costs me dearly simply to look at it, so that I can't afford to do anything else - I already owe thousands. If I were to abandon any hope of going there again, any hope of seeing that exquisite machine at any future time, then my life wouldn't seem worth living; and then what? I know that all the machine's playing time is used by Jasper, who apparently pleases it more than I can with his skill and cunning. Yet I know inside myself that the machine is somehow happiest when I play it, even if I don't gratify it in quite the same way. Now, supposing I take hold of myself and resolve to redirect my attention and reject any idea of visiting the machine again, how will I get along? How long will it take me to recover, if I ever can, from the loss? The situation has been going on so long now, a continual fluctuation of delight at being with the machine and despair at not being able to play it, that my brain seems to have gone into a kind of mild but permanent disorientation, and it's getting worse and worse. I know I'll end up a wreck, a hopeless degenerate, if I don't do something pretty soon to change things. The question is: Why, in heaven's name, when I treat him with such respect and kindness, does the guard treat me with such contempt, with no concern whatever for my feelings or welfare, and, curiously, not even for his own - since if I stop going then he will no longer receive my gifts or money. Obviously, in spite of him saying he likes me, he actually loathes me, and tolerates me only for what he can get out of me. How can I possibly conclude otherwise? As for Jasper; well, he's clearly a favourite of the guard - even though he makes the guard angry by his lack of reliability and the fact that he doesn't really love the machine as I do. But I shall always love that machine, always, and if I were to be honoured by being with it and occasionally playing it for the rest of my life, I would never get tired of it, would always see something fresh and special in it - and we would dance together for ever and evermore...
* * * * *
Two days later, with wrinkled brow and head down - as was his unflattering habit - Simon entered a tobacco shop. He had intended to buy some cigarettes to calm his nerves. As he passed a low shelf, he was seized by the sight of a large picture splashed across the front of the local newspaper. It was the Fabulous Fruit-Machine, and above was the arresting headline: 'Machine Kills Boy'. Below: a small picture of a scrawny looking youth with the caption, 'Jasper Fux.'

  Startled and shaken, Simon bent lower and read:

"After electrocuting local boy, Jasper Fux, yesterday, The Fabulous Fruit Machine exploded into thousands of fragments, shattering everything in the room where it was housed. The guard, who miraculously escaped injury, said afterwards that the owner/inventor - a Professor Zute, whose address had never been revealed to him - had hired him through an advertisement in an esoteric magazine and had paid him in advance. Professor Zute, he said, had been due to collect the machine that very day. The boy, he added, must have inadvertently provoked the machine, which at first reacted with such blinding intensity of lights and jangling that even he could not have predicted it. A police spokesman, who described the guard's legal position as precarious, explained that he had never heard of a professor Zute, and that the guard had been taken into custody and charged with manslaughter…"

After a delay for the shock to pass, Simon turned and went out of the shop. He looked dazed. He had bought nothing. He walked to the sea front and turned to deliberately face the wind. His expression was blank now and the furrows had gone from his brow. Walking boldly upright, he strode with a growing sense of invulnerability towards the east cliffs, his head high, his hair blowing wildly and unheeded, his entire demeanour strong and resolute. Invigorated and infused with this new and unfamiliar confidence, he smiled, and a moment later suddenly began laughing loudly into the wind. For the first time in his life, he realised, he was laughing at himself.





Simon relaxing on the cliff ------------ by Franz von Lenbach 1860

* seaside hamlet of M: Mugsborough.