That stark, crispy cold. London’s familiar morning mist making clouds of my breath. Not a soul on the streets. My hands, apron and eventually the lighter are painted red by blood. So fucking surreal.
Between my lips the fag tastes like a carpet would, I imagine. Smoke, evicted from my mouth, mingles with the mist. From inside the venue, the music plays on:
Mr. Mojo Risin’, Mr. Mojo Risin’
Mr. Mojo Risin’, Mr. Mojo Risin’
Got to keep on risin’…
Morrison accelerates in a gritty hue and breaks into a howl. Red lights roll in the mist.
Police arrive and I’m still smiling like a lunatic.
‘Kris doesn’t really want to win. He’s playing for the game.’
This gains me a smile. The Korean turns to us briefly before refocusing on the screen and a big grin forms on his face as he nods, ‘Dat’s true’.
‘Yeah, ha. Better say Kris don’t know how to win,’ Felix gets up pretending to be frustrated and walks to the office. His name is Felicjan, Polish. But here he’s simply Felix. Names tend to get butchered in this place.
Same with me. My name is Cypriot: Damaskinos Eleftheriou. This is what the tag on my uniform reads:
Here to Help!
Xerxes Casino London
Still, everyone here calls me D. Partly because it’s shorter, partly for the jokes.
‘Your love’s here again, yeah?’ Felix blurts entering the small office.
‘Who?’ I don’t look up. I’m sitting on the floor before the safe, counting notes.
‘Mrs Lu, yeah?’
Mrs Lu. Korean woman, mid-60s. Two sugars, very little milk. Always plays Magic Gems, knows when to stop. Well, mostly. Doesn’t talk much.
‘She asking for coffee…’ Felix pauses dramatically as if I don’t know what will follow. ‘But I think she wants the D!’
I emulate a facepalm to keep him happy. Felix laughs and I have to go out to serve Mrs Lu because she won’t drink coffee made by anyone other than me. Apparently, I’m a coffee-making god.
The venue is empty at this hour, 4.30 am. But we’re 24/7, you never know when someone might walk in. I have to do the hoovering, clean the screens, change a light bulb, maybe do some refills and check the float for the morning shift. But we’re waiting for Kris to leave to turn off the machines. I have time, so I’m staying on the floor watching the Korean play and thinking about names.
I know Kris isn’t his real name. I mean, half the people here use fake names anyway. Either because they’re foreigners or. If you look at our books, they’re full of Lees, Rays, Mikes, Sams and Nicks. Anything, as long as it’s short and can be confused for someone else. No gambler wants his real name written down.
In front of me, Kris is playing on two of the three Golden Jubilees. He’s been checking the screens for a whole five minutes. Now he’s standing like a rooster, head tilted slightly forward, one foot a step ahead of the other, and places his hands on each machine’s START button. He waits, waits, then presses them both simultaneously, lunging forward and jolting back again, as though startled. His face is a marvel, so empty and so alive, eyes dashing back and forth between the screens as the machines begin to gurgle.
The slots spin. No combos.
‘Aaaaah!’ he lets out a big sigh.
‘Kris? Why don’t you try three of them at the same time?’ I ask.
He turns to me, confused. They can never tell when I’m joking.
‘Look, right? You can just stand at the middle one, like this,’ I get up to demonstrate, facing Golden Jubilee #2. ‘Then press these two with your hands and the middle one with your knee. For better luck, you know?’
Kris is laughing as I stand there pretending to press three START buttons on the machines, maintaining a pose that looks like some karate move.
‘Nawww!’ he says. ‘You make fun of me, naw!’ His mouth when he pronounces ‘o’ produces the roundest vowel I’ve ever heard. He laughs and pats me on the shoulder when I resume my seat.
‘What in the hell are you two doing?!’ Felix pops his head out the office door, eyes bigger than two-pound coins. He’s been checking the float for the hundredth time, I know, sat like a bear on the floor before the safe, counting and stealing glances at the CCTV monitor. Felix is obsessed with the float, checks it even when we haven’t performed any transactions, as though the money in the safe might eat each other or the numbers betray him and turn up fewer digits than before. He must have seen my graceful kung-fu-style gambling demonstration on the camera board.
‘He making fun of me!’ Kris complains, smiling wide.
I don’t say anything. I’m sitting on the short chair in front of Ultra Bets III, in the middle of the room.
Felix leaves the office and comes closer, holding a bunch of twenties. ‘What’s this?!’ he says, looking at my hands.
I’m holding my komboloi. It’s a game, a string of beads you just play with to pass time.
‘My anal beads?’ I tell him and give the komboloi a flick. Crack it goes.
His eyes bulge even more before he gets the joke.
Finally, he does. ‘Oh, it’s like a praying thing. Rosary, yeah?’ He facepalms. Then turns mischievous. ‘Because if it were anal beads, they really small, you know, that tell something about you.’ We’re laughing.
‘What you doing anyway? Praying for Kris?’
‘Indeed. Praying he stops gambling his money away. The day he never returns to this place I’ll be happy about him,’ I say.
‘Pray that he fucking leaves so we can do some work round here,’ Felix starts, his attention diverted to our only customer. ‘Kris? You know it’s five, yeah? We got to turn off the machines, they’re fucking burning! They been on for two days! You don’t sleep? What you even doing awake at this hour, for fuck’s sake?! You were here when I came at nine…’
And on it goes. Felix directs a torrent of life advice to him. The Korean keeps on playing unabashed with a smile on his face, answering once every ten sentences. It’s always like that.
Their voices fade out as I get up and return to the office. I think about how almost nothing here is what it seems. Apart from Kris, we’re not truly cheerful. Felix isn’t happy; his constant stream of frustration and obsessive rechecking of the float are ways to vent, from too much pressure. And I? What am I doing here? My jokes are a rugged defence, determination to pull through, some unbelievable temerity I have in me. I’m overworked. Have slept three hours in the past two days. The clock on the wall marks my ninth hour of work for today and I’m looking at another two before I can go home. I should be writing.
I gather the pots of coins and stacks of notes from the floor and put them back in the safe. The keys are still on it; I take them and keep them in my vest’s pocket. Return the scale and paperwork to the desk. It’s 05.00 am. I wonder what Isabelle’s up to. Sleeping, probably.
I make coffee. I’m tired of the store’s radio station and the pop shit it regurgitates. I turn up the volume, hit Forbidden Tigers on the speakers, and drag Henry behind me. Henry’s the hoover.
When Son of a Carnivore comes up, I headbang throughout the song and air guitar with the hoover hose. The other two souls in there laugh with my shenanigans.
I don’t kill the spider in the toilet. It’s webbed up pretty much the whole left ceiling corner. But I never kill spiders, I like them, how stoical they look.
Instead, I just clear the web. Strange. I’ve never noticed this before. Matte paper? Whoever in their right mind would use matter paper with –what’s this, blue tac!– to cover a hole in the tiles? But they have. Fang, probably. Nothing goes to waste in this place with her. The matte paper is all-white, almost indistinguishable over the tiles, covering up the hole perfectly.
I prize it open carefully with my fingertips. It doesn’t lead anywhere. Just a hole in the wall. In the gents of a machines-only arcade in a London suburb.
The spider is unaffected by my curiosity.
‘You’re terrible silent when you cum.’
I’m lying out of breath on top of her, a puppet unstringed, aware of my weight pressing her down. Isabelle’s laptop is playing deep house or something. The statement catches me unaware.
‘What the hell. I didn’t know I had to announce it to the world.’
‘No, like, I just never know when you finish, is all,’ she laughs. I can’t see her face, the laptop’s light facing away from us.
‘What the hell, surely it’s obvious when someone stops fucking you!’
‘Not necessarily, no.’
‘You could, you know, moan or something.’
‘Let me get this right. You finished. Why would you need to know the exact moment I follow?’
‘It’d just be nice, my god!’
She pushes me to the side with a bit of effort and goes to get water. Not much of a cuddler.
When she’s back and we start again, I wait a bit. Then, as she’s spasming and about to finish, I start shouting, hysterically loud as I can: ‘NEIGHBOURS, NEIGHBOURS, I’M CUMMING, I’M CUMMING, AAAAAAAGH!’
She’s finishing and cracking up into nervous laughter and punching my face by accident all at the same time while trying to shush me with her flying hands and hissing, What the hell is wrong with you?!
In the end she buries my head under the pillow and continues moving over me.
Feels like the sea contained in a flat.
‘Ladies and gentlemen…’ I cough, put on my radio voice.
The fifteen or sixteen guys on the floor, some of them playing, some watching, look up momentarily. Their eyes return to the screens though their ears perk up.
‘Welcome to Homewrecker Casino Laaandon. The one, singular, most bizarre place to spend your hard-earned quid without even experiencing the marvels of getting dildo-penetrated in the rectum by a midget hooker tripping on ecstasy.’
This brings zero reaction. I speak quite fast and, of course, their English is worse than basic.
It’s 02.15 am. Time for the hourly promotions announcement I’ve been postponing for the whole shift. I’ve pulled my chair next to the CCTV screen and I’m holding the mic close to my mouth. We’re supposed to be on the floor and addressing the customers directly when making announcements; fuck that.
‘You’re listening to another public service announcement brought to you by this handsome bastard soon-to-be-worldwide-acclaimed-author currently playing host in this asylum packed with lunatics –for the record, that’s you, gentlemen…’
Fast, I switch off the mic and press the CD function on the monitor. The previously paused 4 Non Blondes song on the PC resumes playing:
I try all the time
In this institution
And I pray, oh my God do I pray
I pray every single day…
Lydia, the only Brit in this business, is working with me tonight. She rolls her eyes from the other side of the office. I wink at her and she beams back.
I switch to the mic.
‘I pray for you, my nanny goats, truly. In this house of sin and decadence you so willingly and idiotically inhabit everyday, you should know there is, really, one exquisite person deeply caring for you and hoping for your salvation. Kris, stop excavating your nose dude, that’s so fucking disgusting mate.’
They turn to him and some of them laugh.
‘Gentilz homies o’ mine,’ I resume, honeying up my voice, ‘I was going to tell you all about how an American magazine’s hosting a short story of mine this month…’ I clear my throat, ‘…but knowing what illiterate nescient Philistines nursing no affection whatsoever for the miracle of written word you collectively are, I shall spare you the trouble.’
Lydia laughs. They haven’t picked any of that either, of course.
‘But my dear genteel anthropoids, the fact none of you reads me –do you copy, Houston?– or gives a lousy crap about my glorious-to-be career notwithstanding, and seeing how I’m by policy obligated to inform you on our current promotions, let’s get on with that shite before we can get this party rocking again, shall we.’
Of course of course, we’re supposed to be reading from the designated cards when making announcements but hell, this is way more entertaining.
‘This week, as every other week before this one and until the end of time, when oblivion descends upon our poor arses and all the nice things Johnny details in the book of Revelation will take place, i.e. when the Lamb Beast that speaks like a dragon visits and the pissed off angels that’ll be butchering the lot of us arrive– until then, sinner comrades, Xerxes Casino London is offering all our beloved customers tokens for match play up to the whooping sum of ten pounds, ohmygoshdudesdidyouevenhearthaaat?!’ I’m booming in the microphone. ‘Ten pounds match play for you, zhentlemen. Because we love you. Deeply. Intricately. Sexually. But wait, what’s that?’ I pause and send the mic gliding on the counter towards Lydia.
She picks it up. ’Not only that, D. Just for this week-‘ Lydia underlines, as I’m obviously totally ignorant of our running promotions, ‘you get another five pounds in tokens for signing up a friend!’
She passes the mic back to me, concluding with a pretty gesture opening her palms.
‘Woo!’ I exclaim. ‘Hear that, mofos? Don’t be a gambling addict on your own, ruin your best mate’s life too! Tsk, tsk, tsk.’ I look at Lydia. ‘From such a beautiful face, such dangerous proposals. But wait a moment here – I think I’m on to something. Is it my idea or does every employee in this demons’ lair possess a pretty face?! Is it possible we’re employed based solely on our good looks?!’
I get up and open the office door. Lydia directs me a worried look; she has no idea what I’m playing at.
‘Fellow primates of mine,’ I breathe into the mic as I enter the floor and most of them turn around, ‘I need your sincere opinion on this subject.’
They’re a bit wide-eyed. Good.
I reach out, pick Lydia’s hand and lead her out of the office. She spins and makes a turn under my raised palm – the girl’s a natural at impro.
‘Would you say our dear Lydia here iiis biutifol?’ I elaborate on the mic.
The guys send a quite loud cheer, mostly of ‘yes’s’ but a couple of them add other stuff, in their languages.
‘Ta, mah geezers.’ I direct Lydia back to the office. She curtsies a couple of times, walking backwards.
‘And what about me, now. I’m pretty handsome too, no?’
All of them, Korean, Chinese and Polish, gang up into a loud ‘NOOO’ and several ‘boo’s’.
I fake running back to the office, evading imaginary thrown vegetables. Close the door behind me. They’re all –including Lydia– crumpling with laughter now, shaking their heads.
‘Fuckers. Gits. Crustaceans,’ I mouth into the mic, resuming my position on the chair before the monitor. ‘I think they might like you a bit,’ I say to Lydia, who’s beaming again, ‘and as for me, I certainly feel adored. Gentlemen, I sincerely can’t tell you how much your vote of confidence means to me. From the bottom of my ductus deferens, I love you all. No homo.’
I feel the phone in my pocket vibrating. Isabelle? Time to tie things up.
‘So, my dearest aardvarks, belemnites, colocynths, jobbernowls,’ I read in alphabetical order from the list of Captain Haddock’s insults I’ve typed down, printed and stuck next to the monitor for such occasions, ‘…lemme remind you how you may always ask any member of staff apart from me for a cold drink, coffee, tea or a Jesus pamphlet should that come in helpful. Lemme also remind you that alcohol consumption is strictly prohibited in the premises. Of course, both you and I know all too well that every time you visit the paragon of filth we superficially still call ‘the toilets’ you come out drunker than Dionysus on a party night… It’s almost as if our sinks are pouring out pure absinth! But seeing as I haven’t yet overcome my repulsion of beholding other men’s pet-prawns, for the moment I still won’t be checking on you, so you may continue boozing freely in the loos.’
‘But, gentlemen, please keep this in mind. Shall you attempt to harm our machines, harass our beautiful members of staff –I’m talking about me here–, or get on my nerves for any other reason, I shall kick your arses out the door and make sure you’re banned for life. Capish, bros? Remembah Patrick.’
Nothing from the floor, but I know they heard that last bit. Sometimes they get a bit too friendly with the female staff, so it’s good to remind them of manners. ‘Friendly’ as in groping, hugging from behind, and making unwelcome proposals. And of course there was Patrick.
‘And after that delightful note, lets resume your education on the most excellent music genre there ever existed per se, that is, Swedish melodic death metal, you wankerful crew. This is In Flames, Through Oblivion, from their latest album, Siren Charms. Hallelujah!’
I off the mic, switch the monitor to CD function, and put on the song. Lydia goes out to serve drinks.
The text on my mobile is indeed from Isabelle. Brief. Rather dramatic, too.
Don’t contact me again. You. Fucking. Arsehole.
I’m an eidetic. I can recall, at any point in time, with perfect clarity, any moment I’ve experienced myself or have heard of second-hand.
I’ve never told anyone. At first, simply because I thought everyone was that way. And then because I’d realized it’s useful.
Other eidetics remember sounds. With me, it happens with images, scents, numbers, and feelings.
I can tell you exactly what sort of clothes the cab driver wore when Isabelle and I took a taxi back to the hotel on our last night in Madrid last August. The float in the fun place twenty-six days ago included £750 in fifties, £3,240 in twenties, £2,780 in tenners, £2.20 in silver, £0.09 in copper. And on the 26th of April 2012, the day I met Isabelle for the first time, there blew a north-west wind that stopped precisely at 18:15.
I’ve never used mnemonics or any other technique to enhance my memory. Call me lazy but I believe I’m training it regardless through observation. This is convenient when I research prior to writing a story; it may take me months to gather the relevant material and go through it but I never have to make an archive, use post-its, take notes, all that. I simply recall everything.
It also comes in handy on other occasions. For example. Ultra Bets II, v.2.0037. If you play, gamble-off, with a 50p stake for 34 spins, without collecting or adding credit, then change the stake to £1 for 18 spins, then back to 50p for 4 spins, the rows that come up on your screen are:
Jack of Hearts—Jack of Clubs—Three of Spades—Nine of Hearts
Ace of Diamonds—Eight of Clubs—Two of Clubs—Queen of Hearts
Four of Spades—Six of Spades—Jack of Diamonds—King of Spades
Three of Clubs—Four of Diamonds—Queen of Clubs—Seven of Spades
Now, that’s not a winning combo. But if immediately after this screen you change the stake back to £1 and spin again, gamble-on this time, ring-ding-ding! – congratulations, my friend, you’ve hit the £600 jackpot. All in all, thirty-eight quid for six hundred, not a bad exchange.
Of course, I don’t have to remember to carry enough money on me when I work lone shift. It just occurs to me. As I said, I’m eidetic.
‘You told me once, pretty boy, now go back to your work.’
Leo, who’s instructing me to leave him alone –his real name is Andrej– is right though he’s more handsome than me. He’s a builder, his clothes dirty as his look, and he has spent £2,300 in the last four hours playing on the Silver Performer. He winks at me and I wonder how can a wink be so menacing, how the fuck does he do that.
His expression communicates what every male in the world would immediately interpret as a direct threat. The ancient-old facial gesture of ‘I’m up for a fight’. Challenging. But I know it’s for show only. I won’t bite; I’m just taking the piss with him.
I suggested he doesn’t hit the machine. Last month he broke the lower screen, £1,200 worth of damage. But Fang didn’t ban him from the fun place. After a furious bout between them where she effectively over-screamed him, she allowed him to keep coming, provided he behaves and with the knowledge that next time he even as much as scratches a machine he will find the police at his doorstep. Because even with that much damage, he’d spent enough for us to have profits, imagine.
Since then, however, Leo –or Andrej– takes care not to hit the machine too hard, even when he’s losing big. I smile big too, when he punches the Silver Performer at 5.45 am –mildly, for his standards– and leaves, having lost a total of three thousand pounds. An animal tamed.
‘It doesn’t take much to realize this is a business. With more than one hundred stores all over the country, obviously these places are making profit, right? The machines are designed to take more than they give, how hard can it be to grasp this concept? So why in the name of fuck would you ever believe you might always be the one out of fifty guys that happens to win? Every time?! It’s implausible, by logic.’
Lydia here, upset at the gamblers’ mentality, venting during a slow shift.
‘And forget them. What about us? We had to sign that paper confirming we accept to work longer than the legal eight hours. CCTV is rarely for the benefit of observing the customers – mostly it’s so they can spy on us and call to berate us for this or that. Why is the office door open, why are you sitting down, even if there’s no customers I’m sure you can find something to do, why are our profits this month only fifty thousand. Really? Not to mention the fear of getting robbed on every single shift.’
I don’t make a reply.
‘These places should be illegal. Entertainment? What entertainment? Kim stole his wife’s card to continue playing. Phil has lost a house and is living with his son, from who he borrows –right?– to continue playing. Sugar Lee,’ (as opposed to No-Sugar Lee), ‘is on benefits and has two kids, a boy, seven, and a girl, three. Ray has lost over £74,000 in two years –Felix told me yesterday– and his wife divorced him. Still here, everyday. Last week? Nimish came in asking us for food, for food, because he’s getting paid at the end of the month and he’s got nothing left.’
She’s new so I don’t tell her this is the stuff you hear about. Every story has untold sides.
‘It’s a company,’ I say instead. ‘Think of all the people employed by it, on the other hand.’
‘Spare me,’ she says. ‘A company that ‘forgets’ to pay the bonus every second time we earn it. A company that’s established an obligatory half-an-hour break every six hours we work here. Even though we’re not allowed to leave the place because of course we’re working alone and hold the keys to the safe. What do you do during your breaks at three fucking ey em? Visit your aunt for tea? You know how much they save from this ‘well-meant practice’ of not paying the half-hour, eh? Cutting from all the employees across the country? Even with the minimum wage they pay, it comes up to tens of thousands per year.’
I’m silent. Not on a good day.
‘It’s an asylum, this place, literally. I keep thinking how all these people are sick and our job is to nurse their sickness, keep them sick, milk them off their money. And nobody else seems really concerned about what we do here. They treat it as a basic job and there’s that. Too bad it happens to be destructive to other people.’
‘Well,’ I say. ‘After all it’s our job, yours and mine, to ask them to stop when their spending gets out of hand, right?’
‘Are you serious? They’re addicts. You know full well they won’t listen to anything we’ve got to say.’ Lydia seems infuriated.
‘Too bad then. If they’re not mature enough to see what’s going on, don’t they deserve it?’ I ask her.
Lydia gives me a sick look and storms out the office. I watch her on the CCTV monitor, picking up Henry and starting with the front door carpet. I did the hoovering half an hour ago.
It’s quite clear she wants out. Would I be useful was I making her shifts more comfortable, I wonder.
No matter how weird all of them are, Kris is the weirdest. The Korean has been playing in our venue since May. It’s October. He always gambles for small sums and rarely wins. He spends maybe £10 or £20 a night, comes every night. I’ve only seen him win once or twice, something like £70 or £100.
Why is he weird? Several reasons. First, he never gets angry when he loses. I’ve seen gamblers hit the machines, kick them, swear and spit on them, get up and full-on punch the screen using hands, helmets, even the fire extinguisher. But Kris never loses it. He constantly wears that vague smile on his face, as though he’s on some sort of nirvana and losing can’t really touch him. I’ve never seen him frustrated, not once.
Two, his playing style is the worst I’ve ever seen, by far. Of course I’m relatively new at the job and don’t know much about gambling. But the guy’s been playing with the same technique for months now and never tries out anything else. This is very strange. Especially if you consider he watches other players all the time. He has this annoying habit of standing there, behind their shoulder, and watching them play. But he never changes his style, not even when we tell him to. I’ve asked him dozens of times why he keeps spending his money on our most obscure, low-profit-yielding games. His answer never varies: he likes them. When I question him on his unchanging, unwinning betting technique, he shrugs. Says he has his own theory about how the machines work. When I press on, telling him his theories are bollocks as his months-long record of losing proves, he laughs.
It’s as if the guy wants to lose his money. He always chooses the smallest stake on the slot games, 25p, and takes ages to spin. He has his own ritual too. I mean, they all have. Some press the START button with both thumbs. Others take out money from the credit and put it back again before spinning. One or two even caress the machine on the side, or press the keys multiple times, muttering stuff under their breath. Kris does all of these. He repeatedly changes the stake, always ending up on the 25p, takes out the money, puts it back in, touches the screen all over the golden pot that promises a jackpot, then presses the START button with both hands, taking a small step backwards as though afraid his ritual might not work.
And invariably it doesn’t. When he plays roulette, his favourite, he takes entire hours to spend a tenner. He never bets more than the minimum amount, one pound, even when his winnings allow him to bet for more. Winnings and the betting amount are correspondent; the bigger your winnings, the higher you can bet. Not Kris. Kris always bets £1, wins £0.80 or £1.20 maybe. Place your wagers, the machine says. Again, he bets £1, after taking ages to ‘predict’ what the next winning number will be. The ball lands on a different roulette square, and Kris smiles. Then he bets £1 again, filling squares with electronic chips. Locks his selection on the screen. No more bets, the machine announces as he spins. And again and again and again.
Chumbawamba, Tubthumping. This place could do with some cheerfulness. Or I could.
It’s 01.00 am and I have only three people in, all of them the quiet sort. I’ve already hit the jackpot on Ultra Bets II four times this month (when on a lone shift and with my body positioned carefully blocking the screen from the camera’s view, as though I’m just resting on it) and I wouldn’t risk the machine’s payout records becoming suspicious, so nothing exciting on the horizon. I’ve no one to return home to and I don’t feel like withdrawing in the office and writing. Actually, I feel like drinking.
My shift end is approaching –only two hours away– so I call Jay. Saturday night, no surprise he calls back after 30’, from a club’s toilet by the sound of it. In the meantime, I’ve already ordered wine from an overpriced night delivery service and instructed the kind lady to please ask the driver to park at the back.
Jay sounds moderately inebriated and tells me to call him when I’m outside, he’ll figure out a way to gatecrash me in even though it’s a VIP night and despite my disgusting beard. He’s a fox in these things, I have no doubt he will.
I realize there’s no point trying to convince him for a quiet night out. And I’ve got some catching up to do, so when the driver arrives with the shittiest Pinot Grigio you’ve ever tasted I tip him a fiver, smuggle the bottle into the office hiding it in my dealer’s apron and, standing on the far left corner out of the camera’s eye, pretty much gulp the thing down.
The floor trembles under my feet and the beat from the speakers is so loud it can wake the dead and make a frantic army of them. Bodies, everywhere, dancing, touching, rubbing, pulling, jumping, fucking, pissing. Everything and anything.
Naturally, my first thought runs along these drunken lines: Look at this, this shit. This is what people enjoy doing. No matter what madness of plot and narrative you summon into a story, no matter how many fucked up nights you struggle for the perfect word, no matter how much soul you pour into it, it will never compete with this… this maniacal fucking orgy of bodies and alcohol. Lights and bass systems. Screams and pills. The fucking ground is literally fucking shaking under my feet.
…let’s get in there.
‘Creative writing!’ I’m forced to shout. ‘It’s a four-year course!’
‘So you’re like a journo, no?’
I’d rather brave another PhD than suffer through the night with her, regardless that her body’s stuck on mine like words on a .doc file. There, but not really.
Save me, I mouth wide-eyed to Jay one moment he’s looking over at us from the bar and she’s bent laughing perilously close to my crotch.
He clearly mis-lipreads me, for the arsehole comes round with even more cocktails, shots, and a guy he picked up at the bar. Oh dear.
Jay and I leave the club, thankfully unaccompanied. My best mate stumbles and rests on a rail to look at the river. No, wait, he’s vomiting in it. Brilliant.
While we wait for the night bus, Jay elaborates on why it’s usually so productive going out clubbing with me even though I hate the sport. With our looks combined, he says, it’s easier for him to pick up guys and it’s also convenient that I don’t talk much, so he can monopolize chatting them up. The only thing he complains about is that I don’t look gay enough. Faking offense I ask what he means by ‘enough’, Jay laughs, the bus arrives, Jay pukes all over a Schweppes ad on a bin.
When we get to my place, there’s these weird moans coming from inside. I open the door to the new roommates fucking in the corridor, up against the wall. It smells of weed. They see me and Jay, she lets out a high-pitched moan, and they retreat into their apartment. I shove a semi-conscious Jay into my room.
In the kitchen, roommate Ken is frying eggs before work. The dawn is coming in from the window, such an aloof light.
‘Are they fighting?’ he asks me, a bit scared. Must have been hearing the thuds on the wall and her weird moans.
‘They’re fucking,’ I clarify, and we can’t stop laughing after that. I spill my coffee on the counter.
Then I walk back into my room. Ken’s crashed on the sofa, snoring the snore of the shitfaced. I open my laptop and start typing. Enter my very personal trance. It’s bliss.
Lights and blipping sounds. Extravagant colours. People are impressed by this stuff. Coat anything appropriately and they’ll fall for it. No one seems to realize these are men in their forties, fifties, sixties playing Age of Empires or Rambo 3D on ridiculous machines running on Vista.
Obviously there’s also the incentive to win. But once you lose, you start chasing up your losses. It escalates from there. Likely, it’s also loneliness that drives them here. What do these people have to return home to after work? An empty boxing room? In this sense, we provide them with some company of sorts. Overpriced, yes. Healthier than drinking it all in the pub? Probably not.
It’s no wonder these guys rarely tip. Everything goes into the machines, every last penny. How else would be making over fifty grand a month minimum?
Funny thing is, Kris gave me a tip, once. Five pounds, but it was somehow important. He had won sixty or seventy quid maybe. I mean, Kim once hit the double jackpot, one thousand two hundred and ninety seven on Alice in Wonderland, and he told me to keep the seven. You see the imbalance, right?
But I didn’t want tips from Kris. He was the only customer I sort of liked. He’d saved my arse quite several times too, when other customers asked about the particular rules of a game and he was around to provide them with explanations. I mean, we don’t get training about the machines. We have to figure them out on the way. And many times he translated stuff for Korean customers. At Worcester Park where the fun place is, we mainly get Korean customers, and Chinese occasionally. Some Indians and Polish, very few British. Many of them don’t speak anything but the most basic English. Yes, no, coffee. I’ve no idea how these people survive in London without the language really. Caught up in their closed communities, they live in a world within a world. Who doesn’t though, anyway?
He wouldn’t take it back, Kris. Even when I put the fiver in his bag. He chased me around the store and shoved the note in my dealer’s apron. Ridiculous really. So I gave it back one day when he was playing. He asked me for tokens –it was after midnight, so he was entitled to his daily £10 for match play as the date had changed. I left the book on one of the tall chairs when I asked him to sign and while he did I slid 20 tokens, £0.50 each, plus five one-pound coins into the machine. He already had £4.55 in the credit, so I’m not sure if he noticed the difference. If he did, he didn’t say anything. Silently accepted the tip back. Or he just thought I made a mistake and gave him a couple more tokens than I was supposed to.
But I don’t make mistakes.
Fang’s the one that employed me. It’s not her real name but what she chose when she came over from Japan. When she first told me, I thought of Hagrid’s dog from the Harry Potter books. But she’s brilliant, highly intelligent. If I know to offer customers tea or coffee right at the moment they’re thinking of collecting their winnings it’s because of her. Over the years, she’s accumulated all these small tricks that she’s passing on to me. Say, you have to pay a customer £500 that they won on a game. If you give them fifties, they take it and out the door they go. Give them £300 in twenties and £200 in tenners. The sum looks smaller. They’ll spend a couple of tenners, just to see if they win more, thinking they’re going to keep the solid winnings, the twenties. Before they know it, the fire’s burning again and they’re feeding everything back into the machine. No winnings at the end of the day.
During my shifts with Fang we talk about communism in Japan and Hokkaido in the 70s where she grew up. Her life’s a factory of stories so I record my shifts with her on my phone.
Not everyone’s so nice at the fun place. There’s Frogger, for example. Her real name is Milanka, Croatian. But I call her Frogger, and it’s caught on, for two reasons. Her face truly bears the closest resemblance I’ve ever witnessed to that of a frog. And her life is like playing Frogger the arcade on impossible mode: frustrating and idiotic. Even the simplest task, like making tea, is entirely beyond her reach. She can’t understand the concept of keeping the sugar and tea bags inside the office by the fridge and using the kettle so one doesn’t have to go back and forth to the huge boiler outside the office. She insists on filling the mug with water outside, bringing it to the office to add milk, then taking it outside again to add sugar, making double the number of trips while customers are waiting. In fact, we argued about that on my first day. She wouldn’t let me make tea in the office and it escalated from there. After a point I started giving her the silent treatment, which made her run amok. Shouting in front of customers, calling Fang, other employees, and even my former employer whose phone she discovered on my application paperwork. Entirely nuts. As Felix once said, she’s proof there’s life after brain death.
But ever since Fang promoted me to Assistant Manager, Frogger’s not talking to me anymore. Which is splendid.
I’m called a cunt on a daily basis, almost.
I mean, what do you expect working in a place that takes people’s money, their children’s education, wives’ holidays, house loans, and sucks it all up into numerous blipping, flipping, colourful machines?
Not that I ever was particularly sensitive to others’ opinions, mind you, but working at a place like this toughens you up. It messes with your psychology to such a degree you truly, really, irreversibly realize what scum human creatures are or can be under certain circumstances, and that you need at all times to maintain a mind frame conducive to protecting yourself and your own. This, effectively, was a blessing in disguise.
Now you may call me anything, the most absurd insult you can come up with, and I’ll return you the kindest smile my facial muscles can produce. Nothing affects me, no matter how annoying you’re trying to be. I wasn’t always like that. It’s the fun place that changed this in me. The problem was that customers were allowed to be angry, because they paid. In the end, whatever happened, their money ended up with us. So it was Fang’s profit-making policy to let them trod all over us, provided they spent enough in the business.
With Patrick though, see, it was different again. He was spending too little and shouting too much. Not a good combo and I had already won Fang’s support by that time so my arse was safe from every point of view.
I mean, I’m still quite proud I lasted that long. Five hours. Because, by the time he grabbed me by the shirt, I wanted to do it. Would you tolerate a whole five hours worth of a commentary on how shit your business is, how shit you personally are for working there, and then, of course, uncalled-for stuff about your mother? I did. With a polite smile, that is, as stoical as master Miyagi on hallucinogenics, and serving Patrick tea (two sugars, one spit, no milk) every 10’, then replacing the untouched but requested cups. Using thank you’s, please’s and the like.
The moment he grabbed me by the collar, apparently only to shout at my face, was a blessing. I knew it was all on camera. Oh that moment, I was so hoping for it, frankly, I was. I don’t know how much adrenaline this guy had succeeded in pumping into me over the course of that shift. Of course he wouldn’t take it very far either. He’d spent about six hundred quid on Super Hot Games, without it paying any significant amount back; he just needed someone to vent it out on.
It probably looked ridiculous, if you were looking at the scene. Not that we ever checked the CCTV really. But from my perspective, what happens is I calmly reach up my hands and grasp his wrists. A shocked expression on his face as he registers –finally– some response to his torrent of abuse. Brilliant, fucker, let me change that expression into pain, just for you, dearly. The others all around, a blur. I knock his hands aside, open like flowers in spring. First, I push him back, quite violently but not enough to affect anything other than a stagger. Then, a kick to the balls. The gods of football are cheering from above, it’s that good. I’m not stupid – Patrick stands two heads taller than me and spends considerable time at the gym. I’m a chain-smoker that spends his free time over a desk. I don’t stand a chance if I play by the rules.
The first blow –magnificent– finds him on the chest as he’s doubling over, and cuts off his breath throwing him back at the same time. My fist connects with his jaw and sends him turning face first onto the Silver Performer –a brilliant machine may I note, very solid. He drops and I don’t leave him any time to get up. I practically ride him on the floor and direct punch after punch to his face. All around, screams? Shouting? I don’t register much, until I’m satisfied with how Patrick’s face looks. Pollock would have been proud, I swear.
I carry him by the feet and drop him outside, at the front of the store. Then call the cops to pick him up. No one dared touch him for half an hour.
Unsurprisingly, people became a lot politer to the staff after that. I felt quite shit about the incident for a week or so, then came to my senses.
If I hadn’t, he would have – to someone else. Good thing it was me.
I blush a bit when I hand the cashier the lace briefs I’ve chosen. Of course, I couldn’t order them online so this had to be done. They also had to be sort of pricy to be plausible.
I feel like a pervert carrying the £55 Stella McCartney Mia Loving Bridal Boyleg Briefs (Floral White, 91% Silk, 9% Elastane – whatever the hell Elastane is) but I leave the store with my chin up.
4.00 am. Monday. Lone work, night shift. Barely keeping awake.
A knock on the back door. I get up from my semi-slumber in the office and approach. I can’t see a thing from the peephole.
‘Sam? Is that you?’
He lost everything about an hour ago and left after throwing a brief tantrum. What the hell, is he back again?
No answer, just another knock. So I unbolt the big blue door and push it open.
When I see the gun, a real fucking gun, my knees almost give way. Absurdly, I remember that scene in Dead Air where Iain Banks’s narrator explains how people shit themselves in moments of terror, the body’s fight-or-run reaction making sure you’re empty enough to escape unhindered.
I named it ‘the fun place’ as a means of reverse psychology for my sake. I wanted to associate the place with positive thoughts, even though nothing in it was fun really. And because it sounded better in conversation, mainly with Isabelle or friends. ‘I’m going to work’ vs. ‘I’m going to the fun place.’ Obviously the latter won. I’m not ashamed of having worked there, not too much at least. It paid my bills more than well. But I didn’t necessarily want the place associated with me, in essence. So a personal sort of baptism was required.
My first thought is to kick him in the chest. My second thought is to jump to the side and lock myself in the toilets.
I take a step backwards, very, very slowly.
‘How was your shift?’ Felix asks when I pass him the float. He sits on the floor, opens the safe, and starts counting.
‘A shift without the f.’
It takes him some time before he gets it. Felix doesn’t visualize the words, he hears them. Like most people, I think.
‘Why, what happened?!’
‘Girlfriend broke up with me. Thinks I cheated on her.’
‘What, you?!’ he intones morosely, as though my moral integrity is such that it renders even imagining such an act unbelievable. Ironically, I haven’t.
‘What happened?’ he asks.
I sort of break down and tell him.
‘Saw her with someone else. Trafalgar Square of all places, imagine.’
‘What? So?! That don’t mean they-’
‘Kissing and all that,’ I clarify.
‘Oh.’ He goes silent.
‘And she thinks you’re cheating? Why!’ The question mark on Felix’s features is almost visible.
‘I pretended I did,’ I grind. Not the whole truth. Basically, what I did was buy a piece of women’s underwear and place it among my bed sheets. There was shouting on Isabelle’s part, lots of it. Some crying, too, unbelievably. Then she gathered all her stuff and since then stopped crashing at my place.
‘But you didn’t?’ Felix asks. ‘Cheat?’
Felix looks at me as though I’m mad.
‘I wanted to let her keep her dignity,’ I’m forced to explain. ‘Didn’t want to be the one to send her to hell.’
‘What?!’ Felix looks like he might implode or something.
‘Some people, you know, to call them out, it just doesn’t bode well. Better let them go on their way.’
‘You serious?!’ he says. ‘What the fuck!’
‘Doesn’t matter,’ I say. ‘I just wanted out after that. This way I could make her feel justified too.’
‘You’re crazy,’ Felix shakes his head. ‘You been with her how long?
‘Year and a half?’
Then Kim knocks on the office door. I leave Felix counting the float and go to check on the Korean’s machine. Some malfunction on the screen. Nothing I can’t fix.
Whatever this is, it’s not my fucking week. First a staged breakup and now this fucker’s pointing a very real gun at my back. Felix has left several hours ago and I’m alone at the fun place.
When I’m done putting stacks of notes into the plastic bag he throws at me –a Tesco one, how fancy– he gestures voicelessly to tell me to get up.
He looks around and then points to the toilets. He tilts his head to the side: get in there. Aw, fuck. What I’ve always wanted, to be shot in the head in a hastily cleaned toilet at the back of a second-rate casino. Awesome.
Once I’m inside, he shuts the door. I hear him gathering tall chairs behind it, blocking the handle with one of them. As if I’d try to get out while he’s there.
My komboloi, that I dropped when I let him in, rolls in through the gap under the door. ‘Your game,’ his voice says.
I think I hear him shuffling about and leaving.
The store looks strange from above. It takes me several minutes before I finally determine to jump.
I fall from the ceiling –nothing like an angel– and it hurts like hell the way I land. I double up for a moment, then jump to my feet. Who knew the ceiling tiles are fake, removable, and that you can crawl your way over the store via the half-metre-tall gap between scaffolding and cement.
I run to the office. The CCTV monitor – no one in sight. The back door, open, unbolted. I go out and through the alley to the front. My footsteps echo on the pavement. It’s all chilly around my cheeks.
Nobody. I run back inside. Pick up the phone.
When I’m done calling I go out again at the front and into the mist, my lungs, nerves, body screaming for a fag. Music is still coming from inside the doors.
I light up. Only then do I notice I’m bleeding.
I cut myself on the side of the ceiling tile.
Of course, I recognized him. His posture. His movements. Then, his voice. A foreigner myself, and a writer, it’s become my second nature to pick up pronunciations and accents. Even when changed and faked. Two words were enough. ‘Your game,’ he said, didn’t he.
Kris was the only one I’d spent enough time with and had ever explained the item’s use to. Everybody else still thinks it a vaguely religious article. I guess you could say I knew something was on, though I never expected my imagination to materialize. Thank fuck for my inherent paranoia and all these detective novels, I had my suspicions right from the start.
I wonder how long he’s been casing this joint, so to speak. Probably before he started playing, even. And I don’t doubt he’ll continue playing there, for another couple of weeks before giving them some imaginary excuse for vanishing. Probably that he’s going back to his country permanently or something. Hell, they might even throw a party for him.
I’m positive he doesn’t know I recognized him. That’s why I quit. Couldn’t risk him suspecting I made him. Likely, he never intended any harm, but who knows what he might do if he thinks I know. And even though the fact remains they hushed the robbery and never announced the exact amount that was stolen, it wouldn’t be any good for me either if he knew he took only approximately half of what our safe held that night.
As for the rest of it, which I shoved down my apron while bent over the safe with Kris pointing his gun at my back from the door, I re-claimed it the next day, after all the chaos that followed. You’d think the police or someone would check the toilets thoroughly after I was locked up in there, and they supposedly did. Either they didn’t notice the almost invisible matte paper, Fang’s own ingenious work, or I had pushed the notes too far down into the hole for them to discover the cash by fumbling around the opening.
So I’m unemployed once more. Whatever, I’ve got plenty of savings. I told everyone I was too scared of the job anymore. They even offered to raise my wage to keep me. But I declined. Fang was devastated. Lost her best employee, she kept telling me. Felix says he’s thinking of quitting too, that the stress in this job is too much, but I know he secretly believes I’m exaggerating. Frogger’s excited to see me go. Openly tells the customers how I’m in shock after the robbery and terrified to return. Always the idiot, she’s working unknowingly in my favour, enforcing my façade.
Do I worry what others think of me? Not really. Most people have no idea what you’re playing at, and sometimes it’s better to appear stupid, a coward, or simply a lot less than you are instead of giving yourself away.
It’s calling a bluff. You see, I might say I’m no risk-taker, that I don’t gamble. But life itself often makes you do so even when you don’t want to. The circumstances force you to. And then it all spins away beyond your reach. Sometimes you win, other times you don’t.
So you go ahead and place your wagers. No more bets.