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.

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