I can’t believe. I don’t think I’ve ever been so surprised as I am right now. I’ve never seen anything like it. I started working in this new office today, you see, and typical me – I forgot to bring my lunch.
“Is there anywhere to get a bite to eat around here?” I asked the guy at the front desk. Meek little thing, he is. Big nose, floppy over-washed hair, nervous smile. Odd choice for the front desk but there you go. One day I’ll be boss and then I’ll put this place to rights.
“Uh…no, sorry,” floppy-hair said. “There is a vending machine in the hallway though.” He pointed towards the big wooden double doors with the rubber end of his HB pencil and tried at a smile but it came out more as a wince. “There’s cheese, biscuits, a few other snacky bits.” I grunted an amused thanks at him and sauntered to the doors, my high heels making a satisfying click on the floor with each step. Of course, he was checking out my arse as I went. Who wouldn’t?
So I found the vending machine. I mean, it was pretty hard to miss. And now I’m staring at it in shock.
It’s like any standard vending machine, you see. Big, black, coin slot on the right. Except this one, instead of displaying rows of products, has got rows of… of… guinea pigs, each placed in a series of glass-fronted windows! Seriously. All sat as meek as floppy-hair, sagging with tiredness and with blank, blinking eyes. Under each guinea pig is a little typed label, like those ones made on one of those label maker machines – blue tape with embossed white letters. And just as floppy-hair told me, one says ‘cheese’, another says ‘biscuits’. There’s ‘nuts’, ‘bread sticks’, and ‘caviar’ too. There’s even ‘chocolate’ right down the bottom – but Chocolate’s mouth is itself covered in chocolate and his eyes have that sugar-rush wildness about them, so I’m not entirely sure how much chocolate he could dispense.
So I’m stood staring in disbelief when I hear the double doors squeak open. Almost a guinea pig squeak, that is. I turn to see floppy-hair grinning at me like a fool.
“Like it?” he asks.
“Like it?” I retort. “What is it?”
“A vending machine, like I said.” He walks towards me and the door swings shut then open then shut again behind him. Squeak, squeak, squeak. Even his orthopaedic shoes squeak as he strides forward. “Stick a quid in and press a button,” he urged. His wiggling eyebrows urged me on too, underneath that floppy yellow hair of his.
Of course I’ve already got a pound in my hand. I’ve been twiddling it between my fingers as I contemplate. I consider replying to floppy-hair, getting some more information, but instead I slip the coin into the coin slot and listen for the clunk as it lands in the cup below. After a quick glance at floppy-hair for a little reassurance, I reach forward and press ‘cheese’.
The glass of the cheese window slides up and the guinea pig steps forward. He reaches behind, all the while maintaining eye-contact with me of course, and picks up a small lump of cheese, seemingly ripped roughly from a larger, more human-sized chunk of cheddar. He holds the cheese up to me in his little claws, his meek eyes begging me to take it off him. I do, and I could swear he smiles. He takes a step back just before the glass slams to a shut in front of him and his blank expression from before returns.
I pop the cheese into my mouth and chew thoughtfully. Bit of a rip off, a pound for barely a mouthful of cheese, I think, and then I remember floppy-hair.
“Are they real?” I ask him and notice he’s been staring at me with anxious excitement this whole time.
“What do you mean, are they real?” He seems a little hurt by this suggestion.
“Like, are they real living beings, or some sort of trick? Robots or holograms or something?”
“Of course they’re real!” He’s incredulous now. “What do you take us for?”
“Well…” I start as I dig around in my pocket for another pound. I’m still hungry. “Isn’t it a bit cruel? Sticking them guinea pigs in there? Like, slave-labour?” I put the pound into the slot and select ‘bread stick’ this time. The window opens, as before, and the guinea pig steps forward. He slides the bread stick out from beside him. It’s longer than he is and he struggles to pick it up. He stumbles as he tries to hold it up from one end, the other wiggling in my direction, but when I try to take it off him, his little claws dig firmly in and won’t let go.
“Excuse me miss, you can have your bread stick in a moment, but I have to keep hold of it if I wish to talk to you. The window will close once you’ve taken it off me.”
I thought I was beyond surprised, what with the vending machine with the exceptionally well-trained guinea pigs, but now I’m flabbergasted. They even talk!
“Er…okay,” I say and search floppy-hair’s face for a little more reassurance. He gives it to me in the form of a nod.
“I just wanted to say, miss, that we are not slaves. We are workers. Just like you and him. You wouldn’t want to see me out of a job would you? I mean, I’ve got to feed my wife and kids somehow, and this is a sweet little gig.”
“Your… wife and kids? Are they guinea pigs too?” I ask. Stupid question.
“Of course they are!” he cries, offended. I’m still holding my end of the bread stick and good thing too. He might have tumbled out of his window by now, if I’d have let go. “Look, if you question it too much, they’ll get rid of us and get one of those old-fashioned vending machines that don’t have any animal workers at all.”
“Um…okay,” I say. “So what do you want me to do?” I can’t believe I’m talking to a vending machine guinea pig.
“Just take your bread stick and enjoy it!” With that, he drops his end of the bread stick, steps back, and the window slams shut. With a gawping mouth, I look at the other guinea pigs. They’re all nodding furiously in agreement, and so is floppy-hair beside me.
“So…” I ask him. “Are there other guinea pigs in unusual employment here?” He’s started walking away from me.
“Of course there are,” he says over his shoulder. “They’re all over the building.”
The door swings shut with a squeak as he walks through it, and I eye the hinges suspiciously.