Monday, 27 August 2012

What We Gained In The Fire

(What We Gained In The Fire - The Mynabirds)

Eddie had owned a chain of amusement arcades, strung out along seaside towns that used to buzz and bustle in the summer and slump cold and empty in the winter. Times had been good once, but once wasn't any more and the slump stole out from both ends of the winter, creeping forwards through spring and backwards through autumn like the frosts. Takings went down, and rents went up, and the land that the arcades were on would make more money used for other things, if only planning permission would allow.

So Eddie embarked upon his grand plan for retirement. He learned a lot from the first time, because there was a lot of suspicion and muttering about accelerants, so he talked to George who had maintained the machines since the 1950s and not changed his teddy-boy quiff once in all that time. George explained how you could tinker to make an accidental electrical fault less accidental and more on purpose, and so Eddie tinkered and happened to leave the machine next to where all the paperwork was kept and in front of an old couch that didn't meet safety standards and up it all went, and out the insurance paid, and better still it took out the the arcade and the cafe next door, and after that there was no problem getting the planning permission in for a new private car park to be put on the site, and Eddie and a couple of councillors both did quite well out of the whole arrangement because there was money in parking, and hotels, and nightclubs, just not in amusement arcades.

The local papers got a bit snooty at one point and made veiled comments about coincidences, but Eddie's lad Jack had gone away to university and bettered himself and had a job in London as a lawyer, and a girlfriend who did the kind of PR work which had teeth. Eddie called Jack, Jack said disgraceful, and between him and the girlfriend they worked over the local press so bad that they started running articles which made Eddie out to be a latter day Joan of Arc, a saintly martyr to someone else's flames.

The last one was the big one. The plan was that the fire would take out not just the arcade, but the shops and cafes next to it, the whole block, freeing it up for development for a hotel and nightclub. Eddie wired up the machine himself, an old fruit machine that had been there since the seventies. He wandered around the arcade at two in the morning, laying a hand on the penny falls and the slots and all the others, and he breathed in light oil and old cigarette smoke and thought ah, this was my life.

He went into the back room, where the money used to be kept when there was money worth keeping, and he sat down on his old armchair that he'd sat in ever since his first arcade, and he had a big glass of whisky and a cigarette. He thought about the one he'd started with, the little arcade on Harbour Walk. He thought about how he'd bought his second, and then his third, and then chased competitors out of town with threats and promises and once, a lump of wood with nails studded in it, and once, an accidental fire in a bin out the back that took hold, what with the bin being pushed right up against the door. He had another glass of whisky, and thought about the place in Spain. Then he had another cigarette, and he dreamed of old days and days to come and he nodded off, and the cigarette caught the armchair, which came from days long before regulations, and Eddie dreamed his last dreams while the place went up around him.

They still built the hotel.

Sunday, 19 August 2012

Don't Ask Me To Dance

(Arab Strap - Don't Ask Me To Dance)

Left, left, right back and right and back and slide, slide, left, and stamp. No, no, should have been right. Fuck it.

I kicked the rail on the side of the game, then looked around to see if the old sod or his gimpy sons had seen me do it. The three of them gave me the creeps. They all looked like they come from the fifties, quiffs and that, like Elvis, and stank of cigarette smoke and oil. They didn’t like kids thumping the machines in the arcade, and I was barred from too many of the others to risk getting thrown out of this one.

The man was leaning against an Addams Family pinball machine, watching me. I didn’t know how long he had been standing there.

“Good dancer,” he said.

“Done better,” I said. And I had. When I was really giving it some, I was top of the high scores. And if someone else beat me then I'd find the money from somewhere to stay on the machine until I beat them.

“You must practice a lot,” he said.

I ignored him. Blokes that hung around the kids in the arcades, well. Some of them were just simple, kids themselves in grown-up bodies. Others, they were grown up all right, and they wanted grown-up things.

“Got very quick feet,” he said.

“The best,” I said. “You a pervert, then?”

He went red, looked quickly around to see if anyone had heard. “No, no, I’m not.” Meant nothing, but at least he knew that if he was, I had him made.

“Give us a quid then.”

He thought about it for a moment, and then fished in his pocket and held out a coin. I went to take it and he pulled it back so I couldn’t get it. Here we go, I thought. But he surprised me.

“It’s for the dance game,” he said. “You can’t take it and spend it on whatever. I want to see you put it in the game.”

“Whatever turns you on,” I said. Not like I could do much else with just a pound, is it.

So I danced, and he watched. Most likely got his kicks from it, but at least I got to dance. And I was good. Got in the rhythm, got in the trance, when I’m dancing like that there’s nothing else in the world. And in my world, that’s a good thing.

I danced, he watched, and every so often he handed over some more money.

“I think that’s enough,” he said in the end.

I pulled a face. If I got in the high score top ten one more time, it would just be my name, over and over.

“Tell you what,” he said. “Instead, I’ll buy you a coffee, and we’ll sit down and have a little chat.”

You know what happens when you hit one of the machines too hard, or tilt it? Alarm goes off, loud as anything, and the old man or one of his sons comes over and kicks you out. Bar you from the arcade, if you do it enough. Anyway, my alarm went off, just like that. Coffee and a chat? Not a chance.

“See you,” I said, and I jumped off the game and walked away.

“No,” he said, “Please, wait.”

But I was away down past the slot machines and the air hockey tables, and through the big glass doors that opened out on to the empty night.

A little further down the road, I found a ciggy lying on the pavement, only half smoked. I picked it up, and fished about in my pocket for my lighter. Then there were footsteps behind me, and I turned around quick because I knew who they would belong to.

He held his hands up, look, I’m no harm, me. Smiled, even. “It’s ok. I just want to talk to you.”

“Aye, that’s what they all say.” I’d seen kids from the arcades go off with men like him before. We all knew the score. I’d done some things to get more money for the machine, I tell you, but I hadn’t done that. Had thought about it, once, but I robbed a few quid off these younger kids instead.

He took one step closer, and another. “Look, all I’m asking—“ he said, and then he didn’t say anything else because I kicked him hard in the balls and he went down on the pavement like someone had folded him up.

I looked around quickly to see if anyone was watching, but the street was empty. Round here, chances are they’d have turned and walked off anyway.

“Fucking pervert,” I said, and then I kicked him. Only meant to do it a couple of times, but then I felt the rhythm and I followed it, Left, left, right back and right and back and slide, slide, right, and stamp.

Fair out of breath when I was done. Not as much as he was, mind.

Went through his pockets. Found thirty quid in cash, some plastic I could sell for fifty a card, a picture of some woman with a nose twice as big as it should have been, and a load of leaflets about Jesus and some shelter place for kids on the street. Looks like he wasn’t a pervert after all. Ah well. How’s a girl supposed to know?

I stopped off at a corner shop, bought a litre of vodka and sixty Lamberts, got a bus into town, and headed for the arcade by the bus station. Wasn’t barred from there either. Got my dancing shoes on tonight.

Sunday, 12 August 2012

The Boy Done Wrong Again

(Belle and Sebastian - The Boy Done Wrong Again)

Forgive me Father, for I have sinned. It has been twenty-three years since my last confession.

Well, I say twenty-three years, but I don't know if that last one counts - I wasn't quite as forthcoming as I ought to have been. I did tell Father McConnell about the disrespecting of my parents, and about the not paying attention in class. But I didn't tell him about the goings on with Janice Parker. And there was a lot of sinning to confess there. An awful lot.

Sorry, drifted off there for a minute. Mind, Janice was long before I met my Anne. I may have done a few things in my life but I've never been unfaithful. Not once. Even since her condition came along, and things between us in that department became...well, you know. Yes, I am talking about the same Anne you're thinking of. The Anne you visited the other day. That's her. And yes, that means that was me who made the tea, while you two talked. Brought in a plate of digestives. Chocolate ones too, I hope you remember that when you're dishing out the penance. Speaking of which, I'm hoping we can make this confession a package deal, throw in all the old stuff from the last twenty-odd years, give me a couple of hundred extra Hail Marys to make up for it, and deal with the more recent stuff too. In particular the letters.

Oh, I think you do know which letters. The first one dropped through your door a few weeks back. Dear sir, no obligation, you have been specially selected to receive this information, blah blah, ChemiCorp's stock to rise in the market. You probably tossed it in the bin, didn't even give it another thought. Maybe you remember the second letter. United Agronomics. Predicted right again. And I bet that by the third one you were taking notice. These letters coming through your door, not asking for anything, just predicting changes in the stock market. And every time, getting them right.

Still, three times in a row, that's just a lucky run, eh? Coincidence, no more. But it went on. ICTS Global. Entermans Media. Schlesinger Pharma. Each prediction bang on the money each time. Until one week, the letter didn't arrive.

But that wasn't a problem, was it, because that was when the phone calls started. Yes, I can tell you remember the voice now. That was me.

Over those calls, I spun you the pitch. We were developing groundbreaking new expert system software, fuzzy logic and neural nets analysing millions of tiny fluctuations in the economy to predict changes in the market . We needed members of the public, like you, to do our blind trials with, to prove the product - hence the letters. All had gone so well - as you'd seen - that it was ready for prime time, and of course any investors who happened to get in at the ground floor with us - well, they'd share in the success.

And you'll have thought, how could it not be a success? And you'll have thought well, surely even priests are entitled to a decent retirement, bit of luxury in their old age after a lifetime of dedication and poverty, not easy on the pittance the church gives you. Worth investing your retirement savings in. Not to mention the parish funds, just on a ah, temporary basis. Ah come on Father, I know you don't have that sort of money tucked away in your bank account. Just a short term loan of course, who'd know? What can go wrong?

Quite a lot, to be honest.

See, we sent out tens of thousands of letters at first. Half tipped Chemicorp stock to go up. Half tipped it to go down. It went up, so the people who got the predictions wrong never heard from us again. But for the people like you, where we got it right, well we wrote to them again the next week. And so it went on, the same thing each time, dropping the half where we got it wrong, sticking with the half where we got it right. Simple maths, Father. Start off with enough punters, and after a few weeks we still end up with a decent number who've seen us pull off prediction after prediction, and would swear blind that we have the secret formula - and enough of those would be greedy enough - forgive me Father  - to want in on the deal. All going as sweet as a nut.

Then Father O'Donaghy fell ill, and you helped him out by visiting his sick parishioners. Like my Anne. And that's when you met me. You've been good to Anne, she really appreciated your kind words, she's a very pious woman and it was a lot of comfort for her, so I don't like the thought of you losing your savings, not to mention the contents of the poor box and all the trouble that would land you in. So I'm warning you off now, even though if my colleagues knew I'd be in big trouble. And then of course there is the other reason.

After your visit I got to thinking. What if you recognised my voice? You're a smart man, could well put two and two together eventually, voice on the phone, same as the voice you heard saying "More tea, Father?" So I thought I'd come here and confess my guilt. Repent.

Which means that now I've told you, you can't tell anybody else about this, can you? Sanctity of the confessional box and all that, you've got a professional obligation not to talk.  This is just between you, me and God now, isn't it? He'll judge me as he sees fit. And you'll forgive me and say nothing because that's your job. Just like playing a scam is mine. And a cheque for the full amount you sent me will be sitting on this cushion on my side of the box when I leave. All your money. And the rest you, ah, added.

And when you think about it, we're not that far apart, you and me. No, really, don't make that offended noise. Working hard, trying to get people to have a bit of faith, persuading them that if they keep that faith they'll get their reward in the end, and if along the way they need to put their hands in their pockets from time to time for the upkeep of the church roof or whatever, well so be it. Not that different, is it? Judge not lest ye be judged and all that. Anyway, enough talk of judges, makes me feel nervous, so Father, if you'll remind me of the act of contrition I'll get on with it and repent all of my sins here in the secrecy of the confessional. All just between me, you and the big man.

Oh, and don't forget to include Janice Parker, mind. Long time ago now, but Father, there really was a lot of sinning there. An awful lot.

Sunday, 5 August 2012


(Fatoumata Diawara - Clandestin)

When he came and sat down on my bench, I pointedly looked at all the other empty benches dotted along the path through the park. When he looked sideways at me, I thought great, just my luck. The one lunchtime that I can get out of work and have half an hour without phones and people and emails, and some nutter decides to come and sit next to me so he can bore me about whatever it is he’s obsessing about at the moment. 

I should have known, really. It happens to me all the time, on trains, on buses, in cafes. I have a powerful magnetic attraction which draws the strange and bewildered to come and sit next to me and tell me what troubles them. I must have that kind of face. I’ve tried cultivating other kinds of face, but it doesn’t make any difference and probably makes me look like the maddest person in the room anyway. My friends tell me that it’s because these people sense a kindred spirit, ha ha, not heard that one before.

He looked at me again, and I thought oh God, what if he’s not mad? What if he’s trying to pick me up? Don’t get me wrong, I’m all live and let live, and frankly if anyone was interested I could find some small ego boost in that, even if they’re not my particular cup of tea. But now I had to deal with the horror of the social niceties of saying no, thank you, but please don’t be offended by my rejection and it’s not because I’m a homophobe because I’m not, I have extensive liberal credentials and some of my best friends are…

But he solved the problem for me, because he stole one more sideways look, stood up, and walked away. I breathed a sigh of relief, and then I have to admit, I felt a little annoyed. What was wrong with me? I’m not particularly attractive but to be frank, neither was he and I thought he could do a lot worse. I shook my head, looked at my watch. Nearly time to go back to work. He’d left his newspaper on the bench so I picked it up to have something to read on the train home, and a CD fell out of the folded paper and on to my lap. I thought it was one of those ones they are forever giving away, but it had nothing printed on it, and was obviously homemade. Hope it’s nothing he’ll miss, I thought, and I put it in my pocket because there might be something on it which was important, and some contact information which would help me reunite it with its owner. And because I’m nosy and have no shame.

I walked the other way out of the park, and just when I got round the lake I passed a man sat on a bench. I noticed him because the whole situation was quite amusing. He looked a bit like me, same little goatee, same thinning hair, a very similar colour suit, although his was better cut. I also noticed him because when he looked up at me, he stared at the newspaper under my arm, and then I didn’t see whether he kept looking, because I looked straight ahead, and I walked straight ahead, and I walked out of the park thinking oh my god, oh my god, what have I got in my pocket?