Sunday, 12 June 2011

The Machines of Promise

The buzz inside always excited her; on every visit she took a moment to linger in the doorway and drink in the atmosphere, the expectation, the thrill. She loved the glitzy flashing lights, the bustle of laughter, the jangling, clink and clatter of coins, that was real hard, metal money; money you could feel, had some weight. Cash that held out the promise of a better future or at least some respite from the misery outside and her humdrum life.

She had her own machine, her own lucky machine, the one on which she had scored her first big win. This was off to the side and away from where the hoodies and school kids loitered. Under the plastic flashing lights she played the arcade slot machines with an intense concentration. Coin after coin clattered and buzzed, cartoon fruits, bells and notes spun and so many times she almost won. The occasional little win kept her going and excited. That twenty or thirty quid, just what was needed in the chase after the big one. The excitement was obsessive and it was one of her few joys; the joy where she lost all track of time and petty responsibilities.
He was the only one who ever talked to her in this place; at least in any meaningful sense. And she resented it, wanted him to keep his nose out of her affairs, to go away, not to distract her, and above all not to feel sorry for her – the indignity. He was only a cleaner, the nobody who was supposed to sweep up her discarded crisp packets and drinks cans.

It was a twenty minute bus ride back to the two bed council flat where she and her three kids lived. A boy seven, girls five and eleven, though she seemed unsure of details when he questioned her. Back there her kids bawled, scamper through the back alleys, throw scrumped apples at an old lady, ring doorbells and play football against the side wall of the house next door. Some neighbours complained, more wished they'd just go away. She hadn't a clue what her kids were up to and does not want to know.

The arcade manager had warned him before about discouraging the customers, but the manager was never around and so he hoped he'd get away with it. If the punters saw what he saw no one would ever gamble in a place like this. He hated it here, but a jobs a job and he, also, had to eat. He tells her he'll call the social services, the police or whoever; though he and her both know he won't. None of those institutions care or would do anything; it was simply an idle useless threat.

She tells him she's leaving and hopes that'll stop his pestering; and she wonders off towards the entrance. But she heads to the booth and changes another twenty, she receives back several plastic bags of fifty pence pieces from a bored anonymous face; that's the last of the family allowance; fish and chips for tea will have to come out of any winnings. In her empty flat, twenty minutes away, the electricity clicks off as the prepay meter runs out of credit.

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