The Autopay Machine by Atiqah Mokhtar

I had shown up to work on a Thursday morning wearing a blue and green kebaya, one of my favourite outfits.

A note on this blue and green kebaya: It is a favourite of mine for several reasons – the first being that I had inherited it from my mother, who had bought it years and years ago from a shop in Ampang Park that’s still there today.  Secondly, it is a kebaya I can actually wear comfortably – a triumph in the face of having been slightly overweight most of my life and having lost numerous battles with less forgiving kebayas. Thirdly, it’s one of those rare and magical garments that manage to give me the elusive sensation of catching a glimpse of myself in the mirror and going “Eh…not bad.”

So, wearing this magical kebaya, I drove to work and proceeded to park my car in the basement parking lot of Avenue K.

A word on Avenue K: It is the mall located opposite KLCC across Jalan Ampang. Back before some savvy Singaporean property management company took it over and transformed it into the H&M-occupied, sleek complement to KLCC that it is today, Avenue K had been languishing, having no shops that could survive, rendering it a deserted, sad excuse for a mall. Parking in the basement of Avenue K was an exercise in vigilance; walking towards your car, you’d often look about wearily, keys in hand, at the ready. So why did I park there? Well, the rate was much cheaper than parking in KLCC, it was near my office, and it was covered. I figured those factors outweighed the dodginess.

I parked there on a Thursday and went about my day. It ended up being a long one, and I left around 10.30pm — generally not an hour when you want to be walking in an empty basement parking lot of a dodgy shopping mall. I decided to make it quick; I would go pay my parking ticket at the autopay machine, walk to my car with weary and vigilant swiftness, and leave as fast as possible.

I took the lift down to the machine and proceeded to insert my parking ticket. The amount I was required to pay popped up: 15 ringgit. I rummaged through my purse, pulled out one of those newfangled 20 ringgit notes and slid it into the slot, only to have it spat back out. Apparently the machine had not been updated to accept new bills.

I proceeded to pull out a 50 ringgit note and tried that instead, but the machine returned it as well. Slightly consternated, I tried again, but when the same thing happened, I suddenly remembered that Avenue K’s autopay machines were of the confounded kind that didn’t accept large denominations.

It was now nearing 11 pm. I started going through all the remaining change in my wallet – I had a handful of smaller notes and a smattering of change, so I started inserting them into the machine, one note at a time, and then one coin at a time. As luck would have had it, it ended up coming up to a grand total of 14 ringgit and 20 sen. I was short by 80 sen, with no more change in hand. I started rummaging in my bag to see if I had any loose change hanging about, but despite my fumbling, I could not find any.

I was stumped for a second, what should I do? The shops were closed so I couldn’t go buy something and get change to pay the ticket. If I had been smarter, I would have figured out that Avenue K, however deserted, must have had some sort of parking management office with round-the-clock staff for these sorts of things.

But I never said I was smart.

What I remembered instead was that I had some spare change in my car’s ashtray. So I decided to cancel my payment, reclaim my money, go down to my car, get the spare change needed, and come back up to pay for my ticket. Thus resolved, I pressed the “Batal” button on the machine, and waited for my money to be returned.

I had expected the notes to be returned first, anticipating the whirring of the machine as it dispensed the bills. Instead, what I heard was the clanging of coins, lots of them, coming out at the bottom. Confused for a minute, I soon realised what was happening – the machine was indeed returning my money, but returning it largely in 50 sen coins. The clanging was coming from 14 ringgit and 20 sen worth of coins being regurgitated out of the machine.

I stood there for a minute, just staring at the coins, and the first thing I thought of was – “Good grief,” closely followed by “This kebaya doesn’t have pockets.”

By this point I was properly disgruntled, and in no mood to find a graceful, pocket-less way of storing the money, so there was nothing else to do except start grabbing fistfuls of coins and dumping them into my bag willy-nilly. Once I was done, I went down to my car, got in and sort of slumped over the steering wheel for a while, before proceeding to methodically empty out my bag, counting out the coins and supplementing them with additional change from the ashtray to get the nice round figure of 15 ringgit. Thus satisfied, I carefully filled my purse with all that change, turning it into a bulging pocket which barely zipped, and went back upstairs to go pay the damn parking ticket once and for all.

So once again: I got to the machine, inserted the ticket and waited to start feeding the beast my collection of coins as quickly as possible. I just wanted to get it over with, to leave with the important lesson embedded in my mind to always have emergency small change for future autopay mishaps.

Imagine my stupefaction when the amount due that popped up on the screen of the cursed machine was not 15 ringgit, but in fact 16 ringgit. 16 ringgit!

Apparently, the time it had taken me to go to my car and come back up had been enough time to justify an increase in my parking charges.  Not only was that completely out of left field, I didn’t have another ringgit in small change to top this up. I had left the spare change in my car, and even then I doubted it was enough. So now I was stranded by virtue of not having enough money. Which was ridiculous and silly, because I HAD more than enough money, just not in the denominations acceptable by the godforsaken autopay machine!

I stood there for a moment, just staring at the screen. There may have been a selection of choice swears used, among them the predictable “Are you fucking kidding me?” and “Goddamnit,” and mysteriously, “Mangkuk ayun.” There may also have been a mini-existential crisis; I wasn’t exactly questioning the very foundations of life, but I was very firmly asking what, in any conceivable light, could life had had in mind when it decided to put this autopay machine in my way.

The mini-existential crisis was suddenly disrupted when I heard someone approaching – I could hear their footsteps echoing around the corner before actually seeing the person itself.

Now, despite my previous weariness of being in the deserted dodgy shopping mall, fears largely founded on the potential of encountering potential rapists or snatch thieves, a large chunk of those fears were tossed out the window, because as soon as the person rounded the corner, that person being a young Malay man whom it was apparent was heading to pay his own parking ticket, I immediately started towards him, accosting him with a request so forceful I had to repeat myself: “Ada seringgit tak?! Ada seringgit tak?!

I’m not quite sure what the man made of me, this frazzled person in a blue and green kebaya, holding a bulging turquoise purse coming at him with a sort of desperation that was, at the very least, unbecoming. To his credit, after overcoming his initial alarm, he proceeded to nod and opened up his wallet to produce a one ringgit note. Perhaps he thought it was best to just pacify the creature before him and entertain its requests.

But whatever. Choir bells were ringing in my head at this point as I took the proffered note and chirped a thank you, and I simply turned my back on him and slid it into the machine. It did not occur to me to do this stranger a kindness and offer to let him pay his ticket before I did. Instead, what I did was spend the next 10 minutes or so putting one coin in after another, all the while letting the person who had been my saviour stand behind me and wait. It’s one of those moments I’d have changed if by some freak twist of fate I had to do it all over again.

I finally got down to my last and final coin, and as the machine returned my ticket and printed out my receipt, I was overcome by a sense of giddiness. I turned to the stranger and said thank you again, and offered to repay the note.

A note on this offer: In hindsight, I’m not sure how I would have been able to, given I had no change left, meaning I’d have to pay him with my original 20 ringgit note, hoping he’d have a spare 19 ringgit in change to return to me.

The stranger said it was okay though, so I thanked him again and went on my way. I was still frazzled by the whole experience, but mostly just glad that I could actually exit the parking lot. My relief was palpable, and as I drove my car out of the basement, I passed by the stranger as he was walking back to his own car.

I was still feeling so giddy, I waved gaily at him and wished him goodbye.

Feature image by Melissa Toh.

Atiqah - Thumbnail 

Atiqah Mokhtar is a regular contributor to ISSUE. Read her past work here

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