The first and possibly only time that I came across a sentient filter coffee machine, which wheeled itself around on a metal trolley bringing its carafe more or less up to face-height, and thereby encouraging discourse, chit-chat, conversation, took place earlier this year. I was staying at a small business hotel in the town of Woking, having arrived early evening following a day of mindless oblivion at what had been labelled a company seminar and meet / greet, but was more an excuse for head office to show us films about how wonderfully they thought the company was doing, and how exciting the future apparently looked.
The seminar had taken place in the function room of a large multinational hotel in the centre of the town, but because I had signed up for it late, I had been forced to find my own accommodation, and this is why I’d chosen the smaller business hotel, which was a three mile drive out of the town centre. I’d seen the coffee machine in the reception area, somewhat near the computerised self-check-in screen, and, having entered my particulars and been given my room key, I’d then gone to help myself to what was apparently a free coffee, thinking that this was an incredibly kind gesture by the owners of the hotel.
‘Oh! I’m so sorry!’
‘Ha ha, no problem. People often make that mistake’, he replied.
My first impulse was to look around to see if anybody was operating the sentient filter coffee machine by remote control. I also wanted to make sure that nobody had seen me. The whole episode was quite embarrassing and I could feel myself blushing. I was glad that the check-in procedure had been self-service.
‘Here for business?’, he asked.
‘Kind of’, I replied.
Which in itself was a stupid reply, because I was obviously there for business. I was wearing a business suit, and not only had I spent all day at a business-related seminar, but this was a business hotel and advertised itself as such.
‘Yes, unfortunately’, the sentient filter coffee machine replied. ‘But it’s got to be done, hasn’t it? We’ve all got bills to pay’.
The sentient filter coffee machine rolled over to the lift and, without thinking any more of it, I followed. One of his wheels let out a slight squeak.
‘The thing is’, he said, ‘I sell hanging baskets. That’s my trade. You know those baskets that people hang flowers in? I import them from the Far East and sell them to garden centres, wholesalers, that sort of thing. Quite boring, really, I’m afraid’.
‘Not at all’.
‘I work for a company which provides insurance for heavy farm equipment’, I told him. ‘We had our annual seminar today. I can’t begin to describe how deeply uninteresting it was’.
I pressed the call button for the lift and the doors opened immediately. I followed him inside.
‘Floor three, please’, he said.
I pressed the button on the panel and we both stood there in silence as the lift took us up. I bid him a pleasant evening and he got out at the third floor, and then, as I rode the lift up to my floor, I pondered on the universe and how it can still surprise a soul even after all of these years.
It was a hot and uncomfortable evening. It had rained earlier in the day, but then a strong sun had come out which made everything so very warm, and as a result the weather had turned humid and sticky. Coupled to this was the fact that the hotel did not have any air conditioning which, apparently, had been caused by a particularly bad electrical storm the previous week, according to the apologetic email I’d received before I’d booked in. This meant that my small room on the sixth floor with its windows which only opened a tiny crack, and whose wide window had been facing the sun all afternoon, was quite unbearable. I knew that I probably wouldn’t be able to relax there, so around half eight I decided to go out for a walk.
The area around the hotel was quite pleasant. A canal passed the other side of the car park, and beyond that was a small area of woodland. I decided to go for a walk along the canal path for a half hour or so, and having stayed here previously a couple of years back, I knew that there was a canal-side pub further along, though I was not exactly sure how far away it was. In any case, it was nice to get out of that uncomfortable room and enjoy the fresher air as the day cooled into night.
The canal path took me around a slight bend, and then I could see ahead of me, trundling along, the sentient filter coffee machine, his wheels negotiating the packed earth of the path with an apparent ease. I increased my speed and managed to catch up with him.
‘Hey!’, I said, ‘Where are you off to?’
‘My room was too hot’, he explained. ‘I thought I’d get some air’.
And that was it, we’d already run out of things to say to one another. It became a little bit embarrassing, just the sound of my footsteps and the rattle of his metal trays.
‘Mind if I join you?’, I asked.
‘Not at all. Go ahead’.
The oscillations caused by the unmade path were causing his carafe to chafe. The rattling increased as we negotiated an area of path that wasn’t quite so well-maintained. I worried that part of his mechanism might come off, perhaps even the carafe itself, flying out of its receptacle and smashing on the floor or rolling into the canal, but the sentient filter coffee machine was obviously well versed in such terrain.
‘I think there’s a pub along here’, I told him.
‘Yes, in fact I went there the last time I was staying in Woking’, he replied. ‘I met this girl there, Sandi, was her name. We got on well and she spent the night, but I never heard from her again’.
‘Really!’, I said. ‘That’s a shame’.
‘It’s not like I’m a Romeo, wooing over every girl in the district, nor am I the sort to go in for the one-night stand purposefully, but still, I was . . . Well, upset by the lack of contact’.
‘I can understand’.
‘So I put a curse on her’.
I laughed, like it had been a joke.
‘Not a bad curse’, he said, after a while. ‘Just something to let her know that you can never take account of the world and its whims. And I think that’s only fair, don’t you?’
‘How did this curse . . .’, I asked, hardly believing that I was having this conversation, ‘Manifest itself?’
‘Well, I’d rather not say. And it’s not something I do lightly, you know? I don’t throw curses around willy-nilly. And that’s perfectly understandable, isn’t it?’
‘Indeed’, I replied. ‘Perfectly acceptable behaviour’.
‘Let’s just say, she’s now afflicted with something rather odd which will, given time, just become a part of her everyday life. And she’ll get used to it, but others won’t’.
I didn’t know whether to believe him or not, of course. Such things hardly seemed feasible, and I had never believed in the supernatural, yet here I was having a conversation with a sentient filter coffee machine. And also I was tired, hot, and it had been a long day of mind-numbing presentations and self-congratulatory business-talk. We walked along in silence for a while, and I started to notice the birds singing in the small woods across the canal, and the background hum of motorway traffic somewhere the other side of the town. In all other respects, it would have been a pleasant evening.
The pub was a sedate affair with a black and white half-timbered design and tables arranged on a patio next to the canal path. It didn’t exactly seem busy, with a couple of tables that were unoccupied, so we chose one that was near the canal itself. I offered to get him a drink but the sentient filter coffee machine wouldn’t hear of it, and wheeled off into the pub itself, coming back with two pints balanced next to him on the top of the trolley. I took mine, then wondered what would happen with the other one.
‘Just pour it’, he said, ‘Into my water reservoir’.
‘All at once?’
‘Bit by bit. Let me enjoy the experience’.
‘Any sign of Sandi tonight?’
He let out a sigh.
‘Couldn’t see her. And nobody recognised me, either. I mean, I know I wouldn’t expect them to. Perhaps she doesn’t come here any more’.
‘After the curse?’
The sun was starting to set behind the woods. The inky black waters of the canal passed by ever so slowly. Flies played above the surface of the water, and people walked past with dogs, or on bicycles. It was a perfectly pleasant evening.
‘Do you ever feel’, the sentient filter coffee machine asked, ‘that the only pressure in life is to constantly reinvent one’s self?’
‘How do you mean?’
‘I’m sometimes dissatisfied with the version of myself that I present to the world. Do you ever feel this? I want to be amiable, genial-natured and a man of endless humour, but I sometimes worry that I’m just so bland as to be instantly forgettable’.
‘I can see how that could be a problem’.
‘Do I’, he said, moving forwards ever so slightly, ‘Do I blend into the background?’
‘In a sense, though, don’t we all?’
I poured some into his water reservoir.
‘You see, there has to be more to life’, he continued, ‘than being a hanging basket salesman’.
‘To be a hanging basket salesman, one has to have a passion for hanging baskets. And I’m sorry to say . . . I just don’t’.
‘My own job . .’, I began, but then he interrupted me.
‘There’s so much else I could be doing. Do you know what my passion is? Have you any idea what my true passion is? Beer please’.
‘Go on’, I said, tipping some more beer in.
‘I always wanted to be an Elvis impersonator’.
‘Oh yes, absolutely! Imagine doing that for a living. Rocking up at some seedy pub somewhere, and being paid two hundred quid to belt out an hour of Elvis classics accompanied by a karaoke backing machine. The costume, the glamour, the sequins! I’d be the Las Vegas Elvis, the one that everyone remembers, and people would clamour for my attention! Just imagine that!’
‘I can see how adventurous this would be’, I told him. ‘For example. I always thought that I . .’.
‘I’d start with Viva Las Vegas, of course. Just to show everyone the way that things were going. And then I’d launch into all the top ones. But I’m not silly. There would have to be something about me which marked me out compared to all of the other Elvis impersonators. What would my unique selling point be? What makes me different? And then I realised. I would have to do more than just the obvious. I’d do the lesser known songs, you know? And perhaps even some cover versions of other people’s songs. I’d do Bonnie Tyler’s Total Eclipse of the Heart, for example. Reimagined as an Elvis number. Now that’, he said, ‘That would be something else, right? Beer please’.
‘You know’, I said, for the beer had started to make me philosophical, ‘there’s nothing to stand in your way’.
‘But I’ve tried’, he said, in a sudden downbeat tone. ‘I’ve really tried. It’s not that I can’t sing. In fact, I have a damn good singing voice, if I do say so myself. It’s just that I can’t get a costume that will fit’.
I could see how this would be a problem.
‘I have certain hopes and dreams too’, I told him. ‘There are things I really do want to try before it’s too late’.
‘The thing is, it’s all about how we perceive ourselves, isn’t it’.
The sentient filter coffee machine turned a little and looked past me at the canal. A couple of joggers thudded by. The air was still think and clammy with the remnants of the earlier rain, and it really felt that there could have been a storm coming. The sky beyond the woods, where the sun had been setting, was now a grey mass of accumulating clouds.
‘It doesn’t matter how others view us’, he said, almost in a whisper. ‘It’s ourselves that we must satisfy first and foremost. And that’s why my life is so very . . . So very unsatisfying’.
‘I’m sorry to hear that’.
He angled back towards me.
‘Beer, please’, he whispered.
It had been a long day and I hadn’t realised how tired I was. The sun had now almost gone and the clouds were creating a gloomy atmosphere. Multicoloured fairy lights had been hung around the periphery of the patio and the garden of the pub, which reflected back from the flat water of the canal. I knew that nobody would believe my story of spending the evening with a sentient filter coffee machine who imported hanging baskets and wanted to be an Elvis impersonator, but by this stage of the evening I didn’t much care, I wanted to be back in my hotel room and in my bed. In fact, I wondered if I was coming down with some kind of energy-sapping virus, but I didn’t want to just get up and leave the sentient filter coffee machine. For a start, this would appear to be very rude, and secondly, I didn’t want to end up with a curse on me, like the unfortunate Sandi.
‘I’ve been working now’, I said, ‘For quite a few years in the business of . . ‘.
‘It’s annoying, isn’t it? The way that none of us can ever fulfil our true potential because we have to work. Work pays for life, but life can never be as fully realised as it could. Imagine a world in which every dream came true. Do you think we would all be better as people, as members of society? I like to think that this would be the case’. The sentient filter coffee machine seemed to stare into the middle distance, pensive all of a sudden. We were both obviously very tired. ‘I have a philosophy’, he said. ‘Would you like to hear it?’
‘Everything revolves around the potential for relationships’, he said. ‘Obviously, this is needed to ensure the continuation of the species. But everything else: health, wealth, status, our jobs, our clothes, our cars, how we navigate through society, and every single transaction with another person, all of these are a construct, a show we put on to make ourselves more desirable. And we only want to appear to be more desirable so that we can attract a partner, a mate. Am I right? Jobs pay for bills. Bills pay for lifestyle and survival. Lifestyle creates desirability. Desirability leads to that eventual relationship. And that, my friend, that is what absolutely everything leads towards’.
‘You might be right’, I replied, but only because I’d just finished my beer and I now really wanted to go back to the hotel.
The sky was now much darker, with clouds moving, swirling above us.
‘And everything else that happens in life is just an effort to pretend otherwise. Do you understand? Presidents start wars because they want to demonstrate that they haven’t been pulled into the drive to find a relationship. Art also fulfils this function, though it also might be a coat which certain people wear to make themselves appear desirable. Inventors invent, scholars study and librarians maintain shelves, and indeed, it must be added, sentient filter coffee machines want to be Elvis impersonators. And it all leads down this one thing’.
‘I can see where you’re coming from’.
‘And sure, there’s this element of fun. But if you want to cheer someone up, then that’s also a part of this search for desirability’.
‘It’s almost gone’.
‘Tip it in’.
We sat there for a while and I finished my pint. But all I could think about was going back to the hotel and getting some sleep. It had been a hot day, and perhaps the alcohol had not been such a great idea. I even started to wonder how easy it might be, accidentally, of course, to wheel the sentient filter coffee machine into the canal right at this moment, and how from the outside this would appear not to be a murder at all, just an act of vandalism one step up to doing the same with a shopping trolley, but I was tired, and a little shocked at myself for having had such a thought.
‘Well’, he said at last, ‘let’s get back to the hotel’.
‘Yes’, I replied. ‘Lets’.
I spent an uncomfortable night at the hotel. Sure enough, I fell asleep almost as soon as I got into the bed, but I had such odd dreams in which nothing appeared as it should have done and I was left with a feeling in the morning that all was not right with the world, though the actual content of the dreams had disappeared from me memory almost as soon as I’d woke. It took a couple of seconds for my brain to remember that I’d spent the evening with a sentient filter coffee machine.
I woke and packed my bags and went down to the reception area to book out. I was kind of relieved to see that I couldn’t see my companion from the previous evening there. His company, in the end, had been so exhausting, when I could easily have gone for a walk in the other direction and enjoyed some peace and quiet after what had been a very long day at the seminar.
A taxi picked me up and drove me to the train station. The platforms are very long and I walked further down, figuring that the middle of the trains which pull up are always the most crowded. But the sun was out and the clouds of the previous night had gone, and there was even the slightest of breezes, unlike the night before.
I stopped about three quarters of the way along the platform and, for some reason, looked back. And there was the sentient filter coffee machine, obviously having only just arrived, trundling along in my direction. He hadn’t seen me yet, I was sure of it, judging by his unhurried progress, but seeing him there reminded me that the previous night had not been a dream, and that I didn’t quite understand the world the way that I thought I had.
And one compulsion sprang to mind, and that was to stay out of his way. He had sapped me of all energy the night before, and ruined what should have been a comfortable evening enjoying my own company, though looking back, it had been my idea to walk with him. I could so easily have gone on ahead, but at the time I hadn’t wanted to be rude.
I hid behind an advertising board. In spite of the hubbub and the passing trains, and the trains which were arriving and departing from the other platforms, I could hear the squeak of his wheel, the rattle of his carafe. Or maybe I was just imagining these things. I could hear my heart beat faster as I sensed him stop the other side of the advertising board, and then I crept along, back in the other direction.
Emerging further down the platform – and back in the direction that I had originally come – I snuck into a recess and peered around the corner to see the sentient filter coffee machine now at the end of the platform, and it was clear that he was waiting for the same train that I was. The platform was starting to get busy with passengers, all waiting for the same train, and I figured that I would rather get on in the part of the train where it would be crowded than in the same carriage as the sentient filter coffee machine.
Had he seen me? I don’t know. I saw him slowly turn around and look over in my direction. I could sense him looking. He stayed turned around, staring towards me for what seemed like a very long time, and I hoped that I just blended into the background, that to him I just looked the same as everyone else around me. My heart was beating fast, I had no idea that it had been so important to me to stay out of his way, and I tried to hide behind the other passengers, privately cursing them whenever they moved. They weren’t to know, of course.
At last, the train came in. It pulled up next to me, a blur of windows and corporate colours, but the sentient filter coffee machine, was it now speeding along the platform in my direction? I wasn’t sure. I didn’t want to look, I didn’t want it to have a chance of seeing me, but even though the train was right there and a door was within a couple of steps, I decided to go along to the next carriage and try that door, even though to do so would lose me valuable seconds. I left it as late as I could, until the second that the door alarm buzzers started sounding before I jumped on the train, hoping, oh, how I was suddenly hoping, hoping that the sentient filter coffee machine hadn’t seen me.
I was crammed into the vestibule as the train pulled away. There were about six of us in there, and as I had got on last, and had my suitcase with me, I knew that I would have to linger there near the door. I made to turn around and look out the window at the town of Woking as we pulled out, and then the passing countryside, when I realised that there was a young lady standing near me with what looked like a saucepan wedged on the top of her head.
At first, I thought it was a hat. But then I looked closer and yes, it actually was a saucepan. A real, actual saucepan, just wedged there at a slight angle, its handle poking out at one side. She was obviously used to the saucepan being there, for she would tilt her head a little bit to stop the end of the saucepan handle from poking someone in the eye. In all other respects she looked absolutely normal, and was obviously going about her usual day to day business.
‘Excuse me’, I said. ‘I hope you don’t mind me asking’.
She looked over at me.
‘Your name wouldn’t by any chance be Sandi, would it?’
Robert’s short stories have been published widely in magazines such as Stand, Defenestration, Flash Fiction Magazine, Ink Sweat and Tears and others, and his poetry in Acumen, Tribe and the Broadsheet. In 2021 and 2022 he was nominated for the Pushcart Prize. He writes a humorous newspaper column in the Herald Express. He also performs comedy poetry all over the UK at fringes, festivals and TV, and had one of the funniest one-liners of the 2018 Edinburgh Fringe. He was recently featured very briefly on Britain’s Got Talent.