A short story for young adults. First published in Filled to Bursting With Disco, a booklet commissioned by Hastings Library and East Sussex County Council.
Dale can picture the accident before he’s seen it, before he’s rushing to the seafront as fast as his skinny knees will carry him.
It’s like he’s always known this would happen. An event like this comes down to angles, speed and light, and Dale’s spent enough homework hours standing in front of the battered Wallawitz 8001 pinball machine to learn the future. So long that its plastic handles are shaped to his palms, like they were shaped to his brother’s before him.
He’d been planning to meet their smooth handshake later, after milkshake, but then Hatty Tayler sang into the shack about the commotion on the seafront and now he’s got chocolate ice cream churning in his belly as his legs tear at the paving slabs and a moustache of it on his lip he won’t wash off until tomorrow morning.
He’s seen the headlights of the cars paint the corner countless times. And every time they make it. First a slice of white carved into the red linoleum in the corner, then a quick glint of it on the glass face of the pinball machine, followed by a steady glare across the back wall until the road bends again and steers the cars around parallel to the coast, wiping their headlights out the other side of the room. Except this time. It just takes one car to miss the bend, one driver changing the radio station or adjusting the fan at the wrong moment.
The arcade is all glass and chrome, an oblong of light casting a glow over this empty bit of seafront. Come night, its windows swell with the fizzy promise of warmth between the machines, upbeat music calling out to passers-by. Generally, when Dale walks through the door he can smell coins being ground into the slots. For a certain radius around the building the metal content of the air must be higher, he’s thought, and the coins banked from that establishment a fraction lighter than their identical counterparts.
The headlights can get white hot on the back of your neck when you stand at the controls of the Wallawitz 8001. That back wall could sometimes go without catching a break for thirty, fifty cars on the trot: slice of red linoleum, corner, glint on glass, steady glare on the back wall, wipe out; slice of red linoleum, corner, glint on glass, steady glare on the back wall, wipe out. Again and again, an endless casting of shadows, a train of cars taking the corner at the same angle, their headlights doing the same dance, pulling light across the arcade.
Until now. Dale pictures the calamity as he runs down the hill. When he arrives, the scene is just as he imagined. The double doors on the front of the glass structure have been replaced by the rear end of a car, it’s taillights glowing game-over-red. Children in clothes like his, only tattered, are being helped out of the building through a shattered full-height window next to the door, and the ceiling is obscured by a thickening cloud of smoke. Marty, the arcade’s teenage attendant, is clutching a bloody rag to a cut on his forehead and talking to a policeman.
“You can’t come any closer,” another officer tells Dale as he tries to step across the empty parking spaces in front of the arcade. “It’s dangerous.”
Dale’s already laying low to the asphalt to peer under the car to see what’s become of the Wallawitz 8001. He calls out to Marty to ask if he saw what happened to it but he’s caught up speaking to the officer.
Behind the arcade, in the dark, the sea bites at the sea wall. Flecks of its spittle make it over the roof and land on the pavement in front of the doors. There’s a clutch of roughed-up children standing underneath a lamppost waiting for their parents to come and collect them.
The arcade’s oblong form is filled to bursting with disco: smoke from the car, a dancing cable from the ceiling sending out sparks, and the flashing red-blue-amber of the machines still standing.
Next to the door is a fortune teller machine, the kind with a turban-wearing mannequin inside that prints fortunes on a card for a pound. The fortune teller mannequin has long been missing an index finger, and before now Dale has wondered why the inside of its body looks like honeycomb. Now he’s missing both his arms, and shards of his bubbly plastic insides glimmer on the pavement.
From his vantage point on the floor, Dale can see what he thinks are the twisted metal legs from the front of the Wallawitz 8001. It can’t be gone, he thinks, it can’t: but even whilst he thinks this he can see that it would have been a bullseye. The machine he played every day, and his brother played every day before him, had stood in the middle of the room, about where the car’s bonnet is now.
Dale can also see a shimmering liquid pouring out underneath the car, so that the inside of the arcade is a seascape with a blackening cloud above it. The machine will be matchsticks, Dale thinks. He gives one last glance to the mangled metal frame and is about to stand when the passenger door of the car falls open.
A woman’s narrow ankle in a fine stiletto heel sets down into the lake of petrol. The officers move closer to the shattered window and encourage her through the smoke. Her feet are the only part Dale can see, the smoke has filled the rest of the room. As she takes her first dazed step towards the officers at the window, she catches something with the front of her shoe.
The petrol layer on the linoleum ripples towards Dale like a shark fin is about to break the surface. The silver pinball stutters over the threshold, drops over the kerb and Dale sweeps it up to take home.
It feels right, in his pocket. Like he was waiting for it. Months in front of that machine have given him a sense where the pinball belongs at all times. Angles and speed and light. Once it’s in his pocket, he doesn’t mind so much about the destruction of the Wallawitz 8001. He won’t think again of the plastic handles shaped to his palms, like they were to his brother’s before him. It won’t cross his mind that if he hadn’t gone for milkshake, his parents would be two boys down.