The Last Day of the Season
Sam Fung's shop was the last point of interest on Lowestoft's Claremont Pier and was, by some people's reckoning, the most Easterly point in all of England. Many would argue that a small whitewashed hut thrown some half a mile out into the Atlantic Ocean and perched precariously on rusted metal stilts could hardly be considered a part of the country at all, but this held no water with Sam. An old sign outside, worn by decades of abuse from the salty air, proudly declared this fact, and that was enough for him. The sign had a history in the sense that nobody was quite sure who had put it there and when, and things with this kind of history were generally accepted to be true. The hut was constructed from wooden slats, forming an odd structure which some took to be hexagonal and some took to be octagonal but was actually of no discernible shape at all. The roof rose to a point punctuated with a pretty weathervane, and here the morning squalls of birds congregated, hopeful for scraps of food left by the dwindling tourists (the birds were a constant nuisance for Sam, and he would have to swab the pier's deck twice a day to be rid of their mess). During the good weather, Sam would set half a dozen or so plastic chairs outside for the customers, but today was the last day of season, and the strong biting wind would not allow for such pleasantries.
Inside, the shop was no less than a miracle. The floor-space covered perhaps only fifteen square-feet, but here a person could expect to purchase, among many other things, a bucket and spade set, a pair of sunglasses, a newspaper, a child's rattle, a chocolate bar, a packet of cigarettes, a model plane construction set, a novelty name-badge, a toothbrush, a pack of batteries, a book, a face-painting set, a toy gun, and so on and so on. Of course, it was the very fact that most people would never dream of purchasing such things from Sam's shop which meant he had them in such abundance in the first place. The most his average customer required was an ice-cream when it was hot or a cup of tea when it was cold, and so it was that in the twenty-five years Sam had owned the place these miscellaneous things had simply grown around him like untended garden weeds.
Sam was a small, bean-like man. Grey wisps of hair floated across his mahogany-coloured crown and a hard, stubborn paunch sat defiantly above his belt. Although contented enough, he had a maudlin face and sad eyes which spoke quietly of the old country. On days like these, when the sky became a ceaseless sheet of grey, he thought of home a lot. He thought of his father, a peaceful man of the country, and of the days he spent bathing by the banks of the Mekong with his childhood friends.
The door opened to the sound of a quaint, old-fashioned bell, which shook Sam from his ancient memories. The man who entered was wrapped in a thick, moth-bitten coat. An explosion of unruly hair sprouted from his head and face, and in one hand he carried a bulging polythene bag. Sam frowned at the sight of him. He'd had problems with homeless people before, and knew them to be bad for business.
The man closed the door behind him and pulled his coat tighter to his body. "Cold out there," he grumbled.
Sam's keen eyes studied him closely as he drew towards the counter.
"Pleased to meet you," said the man, who spoke with a surprisingly crisp tongue. "My name's Walter Gumbolt. I was wondering if I could trouble you for a cup of tea."
"You pay," Sam replied quickly. "Tea, one poun' twenny."
"One pound twenty," Gumbolt sighed. "That seems awfully steep for a cup of tea."
"Tea, one poun' twenny," Sam repeated defiantly.
"Well, it seems we have a little problem then."
"No problem. You pay or go."
"I suppose a trade is out of the question. I have with me here a fine collection of shells. It's taken me most of the morning to collect them. I'm sure they could be put to good use somehow."
"Okay. How about this?" suggested Gumbolt. "How about I propose a bet?"
"No bet. You pay or go."
"But I haven't even explained the bet. Only a foolish man would turn down a bet without even knowing the first thing about it."
Sam crossed his stubby arms firmly and waited.
"I noticed this on the way in," said Gumbolt, pointing to a far corner of the shop where a lonely one-armed-bandit machine stood. "An Allwin '68, if I'm not mistaken?"
Sam shrugged. He hadn't thought about the machine much in recent years. Barely anyone played it anymore, preferring instead to use the more modern machines in the pier's arcade arena. These days, it seemed as much a part of the furniture as anything else, something to be switched on every morning and turned off every night out of habit.
"Now, let's see," Gumbolt went on. "That machine had a ten-pound jackpot, correct?"
Again, Sam shrugged.
"Let's say I bet you that I can put a pound coin into that machine and turn it into ten pounds' winnings. Guaranteed. Would you agree that would be impressive?"
Sam held his silence, although he privately agreed that it would indeed. Never in all the years the machine had been there had he seen anybody take the jackpot. He gestured towards the machine.
"Ah," sighed Gumbolt. "Of course, we do have the slight problem of the initial capital."
Sam banged his fist on the counter in annoyance.
"Wait, wait," Gumbolt implored. "Hear the proposal out fully. Let's say you loan me the one pound stake. Now, if my bet fails and the jackpot is not collected, you can simply unlock the machine once I am gone and retrieve your pound coin, correct? You do have a key?"
"Okay, good. Now let's say my bet pays off as I say it will. I will pay you the one pound twenty for the tea, and the additional eight pounds eighty you may keep: an expensive cup of tea, even by your standards. I have no financial interest in this bet, you see. It is simply a common man's desire for a cup of tea after a long and windy walk down this pier. What better breed of people to understand this desire than an Englishman and a Chinaman, eh?"
Sam thought the deal over. He really wasn't losing any money either way, and he had to admit to a curiosity over the man's claims. He reached into the till and took out a pound coin, pushing it across the counter with his forefinger.
Gumbolt took the coin, gave a little nod of gratitude, and walked over to the machine. He thumbed the pound coin into the slot, and what followed was a strange ritual of button-pushing and lever-pulling. His expression was one of pure concentration; he appeared not to focus on the reels at all but rather the buttons and the arm-lever alone. Before long, the sound of coins pounding down onto the plastic winnings tray filled the air, and when the outpouring had stopped Gumbolt opened his arms out wide in a gesture of victory. He turned away from the machine, dismissive of his winnings, and came to stand by the counter once again.
"How you do it?" asked Sam.
"My tea first, if you will."
Sam set about his own well-learned routine, fetching the tea bag and pouring the milk and placing a fresh cup under the coffee-machine to dispense the boiling water. Once he was done, he brought the tea over and put it down on the counter. Gumbolt took the cup, wrapping his thick fingers lovingly around it, and brought it up to his nose to savour the scent. He was a great believer in the theory that the best things on this earth were those things that were hard-earned.
"Well, it's really quite simple," explained Gumbolt after a time, blowing across the surface of his tea. "I used to design and build them, you see. Long ago, of course, back when they were purely mechanical. The odds were decided through a complicated system of weight and pressure. You have no idea the kind of skill and artistry that goes into building one of those things - most people don't. Anyway, to cut a long story short, they introduced the Hold buttons in Nineteen Sixty-Five. Before this it was simply a case of three free-spinning wheels. Before long, everyone wanted the Hold buttons. It gives the player a greater sense of control, you see. So manufacturers all over the world were rushing to get these machines with the Hold function pushed through. Everything was hurried, mass-produced. Mistakes were made, of course. One major difficulty was synchronising this hold function with the already existing technology. Somewhere along the line a major glitch occurred. Now, nobody is quite sure whether this glitch was the work of a person – an irate designer, perhaps - or purely incidental, but that's by the by. The upshot is that this glitch wasn't ironed out until some time into the Seventies. So you have a British-made machine between Sixty-Five and Seventy, and you have yourself a machine with the glitch."
Sam stoked his chin thoughtfully, allowing the tale to sink into his mind. "Glitch?" he mused, looking over to his own machine now.
"In simple terms," said Gumbolt, "it allows the player to action a sequence of holds within four wheel spins, and the jackpot will pay out every time. Just like clockwork. I shouldn't worry; this sequence is quite unorthodox and not at all the kind of sequence any normal player would use. You'd have to know what you were doing. That's why the manufacturers didn't bother with any recalls. It was the industry's best kept secret. Of course, when everything went computerised – chipboard and microchips and what have you – many of the original designers lost their jobs, myself included. It caused quite an upset, and a good few of them went to war with the Sixty-Five to Seventies. They'd tour the country, hammering the jackpots out everywhere they went."
Sam frowned disbelievingly.
"It's true. They made good money, too - until the industry cottoned on to them, at least. The last thing they wanted was these people marauding all over the country spreading gossip. So they paid each and every one of them off. Six-figure deals."
"You laugh, my friend. You have no idea how these people operate. We're talking about a multi-million dollar industry. Think about it. You see three or four of these machines in every pub in the country. One in every café. One in every fast-food takeaway. And this is not even including the casino, the amusement arcades. Think about how many machines that is! Millions upon millions. And here's the kicker…," Gumbolt placed his tea down on the counter and leaned in close to Sam, showing him his yellowy teeth, "you ever met anyone who designs one of these things?"
Sam stood silent,
"No. Of course you haven't. Because they don't exist, at least not to you or I. They're ghosts." Gumbolt lifted his cup from the counter and drank the last mouthful, sighing deeply with pleasure. "A fine cup of tea, my friend," he said cheerily. "I commend you. But, alas, I must be leaving. The great world awaits." He chuckled and turned from the counter, making his way over to the door.
"Hey," Sam called after him. "Why they no pay you off, these people?" he asked.
Gumbolt shrugged. "They don't know I know. And now they don't know you know. I shouldn't worry; these machines are old now, consigned to places like this - no offence. I doubt very much they care anymore. Still, probably best to keep it to yourself." He gave a little conspiratorial wink and disappeared through the door, leaving only the sound of the bell and a faint musky odour behind.
Alone, Sam thought Walter Gumbolt's story over. Conspiracies and pay-offs! It seemed absurd. His thoughts soon came to the transaction itself and slowly it began to dawn on him that he was no better off than the moment Gumbolt had walked through the door; in fact, he was worse off! The rascal had misled a free cup of tea out of him after all!
He laughed quietly to himself and went over to the machine. It no longer appeared simply a piece of furniture to him. Here was a finely-crafted piece of history. Here was a machine that somebody somewhere had spent a long time designing and constructing. And here was a machine with a secret, a secret only he and a handful of people on the planet knew. He felt closer to the machine now, in the way friends feel closer once they have a secret to bind them.
He reached out a hand and ran his fingertips over the Hold buttons. He was touching the secret now, and suddenly he began to wish that he'd asked Gumbolt to reveal the necessary sequence to him, so that he might perform the forbidden act for himself. His hand slipped down further and found itself at the winnings tray, pushing the coins playfully from side to side. He grabbed a handful of the coins, and was surprised to feel a sharp, stabbing sensation in his palm. Recoiling in pain, he looked down to the tray, which was carpeted in a thick layer of shells - shells of all shapes, sizes and colours.
Sam bashed a fist against the machine and made for the door in a fluster of rage. Being tricked out of a cup of tea was one thing, but to be sold a lie - such a crude and outrageous lie – well, that made a fool of a man. That took more than his money.
He reached the door and flung it wide open. The sea air hammered in and he fought against it, forcing himself out onto the pier, where he could see nobody, where he could nothing but the menacing gulls and an empty polythene bag dancing mournfully out to sea.