By Tomas Marcantonio
The old man returned every summer. When I arrived each morning he would be waiting by the pilings in the shadow of the pier, clutching a tray of salted chips and a wooden fork. I unlocked the door, dropped my backpack behind the counter, and exchanged his golden pounds for rolls of large bronze pennies.
‘Good lad,’ he said, shuffling off to begin his usual circuit of the ancient machines.
He flicked the spring-loaded handles and watched as the steel balls bounced around the copper coils. Usually they disappeared in the hole of no return, but sometimes they landed in one of the silver cups – a win. He turned the rusted knob and two bronze coins clattered into the tray below. He smiled, rubbing his thumbs over the pennies, and moved on to feed them into the next machine.
There were no prizes; no keyrings or sweets, no way to return the discontinued coppers to real currency. The only victory was seeing the old pennies return to the tray, extending the playing time that bit longer.
I often worked on my laptop while he played, humming along to the twenties music my boss insisted on playing on a loop. By mid-morning, on sunny days, the arcade would be somewhat busy. Families strolled in by accident with greasy bags of doughnuts. Couples wandered in from the pebbles, carrying half-chewed sticks of rainbow rock. None stayed for long. The old man watched with a melancholy smile as they spent a pound and left.
On the final day of summer, as always, he thanked me before leaving.
‘You’ll still be here next year, won’t you?’
I knew from experience he was talking about the arcade, not me. I was a year from graduating, and my summers working in the old arcade were coming to an end.
‘The owner’s still refusing to sell,’ I reassured him. ‘I think it’ll be here.’
‘I sincerely hope it is. I used to come here with my Esme. There’s a lot of memory in these old things.’
He turned back to gaze at the machines.
‘It’s funny,’ he said. ‘No matter how many years pass, the balls keep spinning round those coils just as they did all those years ago. The knobs keep turning, the coins keep dropping back into the trays. She’s the only part that doesn’t return. You can’t bring some things back, can you, lad?’
I closed my laptop and pulled a roll of pennies from under the counter.
‘You know,’ I said. ‘I’ve never even tried some of these games. Would you mind showing me?’
He beckoned me over to the closest machine. ‘This was the first one we had in Brighton, used to be on the West Pier before the fire. My, that was a long time ago now. Slip the coin in there, lad, I’ll show you how it’s done.’
I pushed the coin into the slot and watched a ball bearing appear from a hole in the centre. He stepped forward and stroked the handle with his stiff old thumb. Then with sudden vigour he slammed the handle and laughed as the ball cannoned around inside the glass case. In the dusty reflection I saw twinkling eyes above a boyish grin and, as the giggling man collected his coins, a vision of a young woman beaming over his shoulder.
Tomas Marcantonio is a fiction and travel writer from Brighton, England. His work has appeared in places such as Metaphorosis Magazine, STORGY, and Ellipsis Zine. Tomas is currently based in Busan, South Korea, where he splits his time between writing, teaching, and getting lost in neon-lit backstreets.