Cherry – Cherry – Seven Nothing Seven – Watermelon – Bell Nothing Cherry – Seven – Seven Nothing It would be four in the morning by now, maybe five. But this is a place without time, without clocks or windows, where day and night, where hours and days all blend into one another. Bar – Grape – Grape Nothing Bar – Orange – Watermelon Nothing Orange – Cherry – Orange Below the cherry a third orange Near miss She feels nothing. But this is the point. Tapping the spin button for the thousandth, two thousandth time this session. Maybe more. Her eyes stinging from insomnia and the hours and hours of vivid cherry red and lemon yellow and grape purple. Grape – Lemon – Lemon Another a near miss Getting closer. A matter of time. Grape – Cherry – Seven Nothing It doesn’t matter. Nothing matters. She’s in the zone, the flow, the whole point of it all. The self-obliterating oblivion where the aches and pains and worries fade away. Where the bills and the mounting debt and John at home with his emphysema, now rake thin and wheezy chested doesn’t cross her mind. He’s one of the first things she forgets- him and his frailty and his sickness and the struggle in his eyes. She would never admit it to anyone but the thought of him, the worry of him, disappearing after the first dozen spins of each session was a blessing. A reprieve. Oblivion. Bell – Bell – Watermelon Nothing Seven – Bar – Horseshoe Nothing There hadn’t been any horseshoes for a while… When she played the machine, her machine, her arthritic hand never bothered her. With her thumb anchored near the slot that pulled in her cash time after time and with her index finger poised just above the spin button her hand became that of the girl who had taken all those piano lessons half a century before- nimble, graceful, controlled. The aches and the cramps would call afterwards when she was driving or cooking or fetching or cleaning. Or maybe they were there the whole time and the golden bells and silver horseshoes were simply a potent, effective, ruinous anaesthetic. Take as needed for pain. Seven – Bar – Orange Nothing Bell – Horseshoe – Bar Nothing Not even close to anything… Her machine. Her spot tucked away deep in the maze of machines, secluded and private. You had to go out of your way to get here. Hers. This was true privacy, true separateness, where the tasteful piped music and the decor and the staff all fade away as she is absorbed into the machine and the game plays her as she plays it. A merging. A relationship that asks for nothing more than every penny she has. Grape – Watermelon – Orange Seven – Seven – Lemon Orange – Watermelon – Seven The zone feeds on speed as well as money. Demands it. To gain the tunnel vision, to be anaesthetised, to become disembodied eyes joined to a finger and nothing else- you have to play fast. Spin, spin, spin, tap, tap, tap. Speed slows the world down and losing control is how you regain control. Spin, spin, spin, credits go down, credits go up, money in the slot, her bankroll getting lighter hour after hour. A hypnotic state, a substitute for the sleep that eludes her night after night. Or is it the thought of leaving the house when John nods off and heading here to become the machine that keeps her awake? Which came first? Does it even matter? Her eyes now red. Maybe outside the sun is coming up? Seven – Orange – Watermelon Maybe John is awake now, wondering where she is. Wheezy. Worried. Watermelon – Bell – Horseshoe She had to buy more time. Her watch, an anniversary gift from John, was in her handbag. Having it on her wrist stopped her from entering the zone, so she zipped it away at the start of each session. She would find her machine, thank heavens it was unoccupied, sit in the leather-effect seat- perfectly designed to be comfortable for long sessions of play-, take a bankroll from her handbag, unclasp her watch and zip it into the front compartment and then begin feeding the machine increments of her pension, her savings, her credit line. She would have to call him, tell him something. She stood, the fake leather chair creaking as it released her from its subtle restraint. Watermelon – Bell – Orange She was hungry, a little giddy, and tired. She shouldered her handbag, placed an empty coin cup upside down next to the spin button- the universal signal that this machine was occupied. To make sure- she also caught the eye of a uniformed staff member- and asked him to save her machine. ‘I need to make a quick call love- are you alright to watch my machine for a minute? I’ll be straight back.’ Her voice sounded wrong to her as it came out. Her mouth dry from hours of not speaking, not drinking anything. ‘Don’t worry, I’ll keep it for you.’ The man said, young and bored and nearing the end of his night shift. Though he made no sign of it she felt his judgement, his pity, his curiosity at how a nice-seeming woman around retirement age could be here now, at this time of night. ‘I’ll just be a minute.’ ‘Take all the time you need.’ She dialled, thinking of what to say. The answerphone message played. John must still be asleep, or too tired to answer. Maybe it hadn’t been that long. Maybe she had more time. ‘Hiya, love. Just checking in on you, making sure you aren’t worried. I, uh, I couldn’t sleep so I thought I’d head out early and take care of a few things. Maybe pick us up something nice for us to eat later on. Uh, I laid out your pills for this morning next to you and I left you a glass of water and a sandwich on a plate there if you’re hungry. Cheese. We didn’t have much food in. Anyway, I’m sorry if this woke you. I’m sorry. Anyway. Get some rest and I’ll be back in a little while. Love you. Bye.’ * The young man in the uniform had held her machine, and no one had sat down at the machine next to her, thank goodness. That would’ve meant that she would have had to move to another one. Had to have cashed out and then fed all of that to a new machine, ruined the whole rhythm of the thing. It was all a question of rhythm and speed. She eased into the seat, still warm, designed with a perfect tilt towards the screen just as the machine itself was perfectly built for maximum comfort, for maximum distraction from the fact that the gambler has a body and is capable of walking away. Seven – Orange – Watermelon Bell – Cherry - Cherry Near miss Watermelon – Bell – Horseshoe Nothing The machine sucked her in. The zone called and she entered it. Speed and rhythm. Credits- money- like sand through fingers but hitting enough small wins to keep going. Money is not the reward, nor is excitement, nor is the thrill of risk. The game itself is the reward, the prize is the ability to keep going, to keep playing. And then the unthinkable happened… Seven – Seven – Seven Jackpot Double her initial bankroll- bills and grocery and petrol and more. The machine made congratulatory chimes and flashed a rainbow of colour. She hated when the machines made too much noise, it was jarring, it killed the flow. ‘Great’ she thought as the credit counter clocked up, adding all of her winnings to her total. ‘Now I’ve got to stay until this is all gone.’ She played faster, piano fingers tapping spin at inhuman speeds. The night shift gave way to the day shift, songs played quietly, people came and went. Nothing mattered. Lemon – Bell – Bar Seven – Lemon – Cherry The reels were against her. A nothing spin after nothing spin, minute after minute. Time passing but she was too machine-numb to feel it. She was both parched and needing the W.C. Her rule of not drinking anything to prolong the zone could only last so long… Horseshoe – Horseshoe – Cherry Near miss Lemon – Bar – Orange Nothing The credits were getting low. Very low. Starting to panic, woozy anxiety making the need for a toilet break all the stronger. Bar – Seven – Bar Near miss Come on, come on… The zone was fading, the tunnel vision opening to the panorama of reality- sickness, old age, infirmity, debt, disappointment. Uncontrollable fate. In life you lost arbitrarily, but with the machine you lost on your own terms with a reassuring certainty. Twenty symbols per reel, three reels per machine. Simple sums. And while you slowly lose you get to merge with the machine, to stop thinking, to stop feeling. Lemon – Grape – Seven Grape – Seven – Bell She was nearly tapped out. For God’s sake. Panic, shaking, sweating. Horseshoe – Horseshoe – Cherry Come on… Three spins left. Orange – Bar – Watermelon ‘Really?’ Two spins left. Come on, come on, come on… Cherry – Bell – Lemon ‘Please!’ Final spin… Grape – Grape – Bar Near miss Tapped out. It’s over. Aching eyes, aching hand, thirsty, hungry, dizzy. Done. She reached down for her handbag and fumbled inside for her watch, a familiar beginning to the ritual of defeat that she had played out again and again and again. She felt paper, folded and folded and folded into a tiny square, tucked in the corner of the bag. Her heart thumped. The tiredness left. She pinched it between thumb and forefinger and pulled it out and unfolded it. A banknote. It was enough to buy her and John something nice to eat on the way home. It was enough so that she wouldn’t leave this place completely penniless and broken and defeated. Or. It was enough to buy a ticket back into the zone. Sitting in that fake leather chair with the note between her fingers, she closed her eyes and mouthed a silent prayer as she thought about what to do next.
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