recalled by his lord
We were in awe of him. He was everything we wanted to be: confident, grown-up, independent. We were flattered that he talked to us, asked us how we were. He wasn’t a teacher, or a relative, and yet he wanted to know what we thought about things. When he laughed at something we said, or shared a story with us, it felt like we were in his world.
We had no idea who he really was. His name was Steve, but he never told us his full name. We didn’t know how he knew Shaz, or how he had ended up working there. Some of us thought he had an old debt that he needed to pay off, but we never dared ask. When Shaz told him to do something – park a car somewhere, or go for an errand – it was always respectfully. As if Shaz felt sorry for the fact he had to do it.
When he arrived that summer, the first thing he did was paint the outside of the taxi office green. For a week it smelled of fresh paint, and insects got stuck on the wet coating, waving their wings and legs in slow agony. We stood around in a group, watching them die in the afternoon sunshine. The office front was large and we helped him paint it in turns, feeling proud of our own contribution, the small stretch of column or windowsill that we had done. Whenever Shaz appeared up the street – although he rarely did – he took the brush back off us with a sly smile. It thrilled us to be a part of his secret.
We only knew him for the course of one summer. The holidays were difficult for us. They started out blissful, fresh, full of hope and joy at the end of school. We were delirious at not having to wear uniforms we hated, listen to teachers we despised, read textbooks we loathed. The summer baked us, and we sat outside on street corners, laughing and cackling at one another. We relished the lightness of our bodies, free of heavy blazers and bags filled with tasks.
After two or three weeks, the freedom turned stale, as the absence of routine started to wear both our parents’ nerves and our own. Days yawned before us like seas, uncrossable gulfs of time, vast plains that never seemed to end but stretched out in front of us continually, week after week, regardless of what we did to fill them.
That summer, the taxi place saved us. We called it “Taxis” even though the name made no sense. Are you going up to Taxis? Where’s Mango? Is he down at Taxis? We used the word so often we forgot the actual meaning of the name. It became part of our language, our idiom, the code we used to scheme against our parents. We had never seen a taxi there, even though the sign TAXIS 882233 hung in bold black letters above door. It stood half-way up Fishergate Hill, squeezed in between a bed and breakfast full of recovering addicts and a chip shop that was losing money every week. Three doors further up was a grocer’s run by an Indian family, selling flour, oil and rice fresh from Gujarat. First we would go there to stuff one- and two-penny lollies into our mouths, and then run down to the taxi office to see who was playing the games.
Inside stood four arcade games: a stand-up Donkey Kong, a Galaxian, a Cosmic Alien and then, on the other side of the room, a low glass table with Osma Wars written across it. The Donkey Kong had a muffled melody which cheered people up when they played it. We joked that one of the characters on it looked exactly like Steve, and it was true that the resemblance was uncanny. The Galaxian made a constant, rhythmic whine, again and again, as wave after wave of aliens descended. With Cosmic Alien, the scariest moment occurred at the end of each screen, when the last bat suddenly turned into a giant, screaming devil and lunged at your soul.
When nobody played them, the machines stood in their corners and murmured to themselves like horses in a stable, their display modes whispering a strange song of bleeps and notes as the list of high scores scrolled up their screens. Steve’s name was on all the tables. In the bottom of each machine was a glowing red slot where you pushed a coin in to hear an electronic beep – these sounds, and these melodies, stayed in our heads at night. We dreamed of higher scores, advanced stages, more lives, endless credits – and we prayed for them before we went to sleep to any god that would listen.
When an adult came in to play one machine, our attention went straight to them. If we knew they were good, we gathered around their elbows, apprentices around a master, telling each other to be quiet so that the visitor could outdo their personal best. Most of the adults hardly talked to us, but it didn’t matter. Anyone who had money to play on the games commanded our respect. We would have spent our parents’ life savings on those flickering, coloured screens if they had let us.
“Stop crowding the fucking customers,” Shaz told us. “You shouldn’t even be here.”
“Fuck off, Shaz.”
“I know all your fucking uncles, you cunts,” Shaz would say. “Don’t tell me to fuck off.”
Whenever Steve opened up the shop, he would load the machines with free credits for all of us. He could never do too many, for fear of Shaz finding out. On weekday mornings all of us turned up at 10 a.m., expectantly. With his silver keys, and the air of a man coming to feed a street full of cats, he would open the plastic grille of each machine and flick the switch half a dozen times, releasing the magical blips that, upon hearing, made us lose our minds.
“Keep your mouths shut when the boss comes, lads,” said Steve.
We thought he was thirty, but he would never tell us his age, only that he hoped to live forever. Mango said he saw him shopping once in St George’s with a woman and two kids. When we asked him, he laughed and said: “You think all fucking white people look the same, right?” When he locked up the shop some of us walked with him sometimes to the bus station, but we never really understood where he lived. He gave different answers to our questions at different times, so in the end we gave up asking, thinking he just didn’t want us to know.
We never suspected he was in any trouble at first. He had a happy-go-lucky way about him – he walked with a kind of skip, almost girlish, that told everyone around him he wasn’t worried about the world, or the world to come, or his fate in either of them. We imitated it when he wasn’t there, although only Mukhtar could do it perfectly.
One day, however, a man came by and asked if “Stephen” was around. There was no-one in the back and only three or four of us were there, watching an older kid play one of the games. The man was thin, friendly, middle-aged. We looked at his face, trying to see if it was Steve’s father, or a relation, but the man’s unremarkable features gave nothing away. The only odd thing was his dress – he was completely in black; black t-shirt, black jeans, which matched his black, silver-streaked, slightly greasy hair. In the middle of a summer’s day, it looked eccentric.
“He was here half an hour ago,” said Craig. “He might have gone out.”
Still radiating friendliness, the man smiled and looked around the room, as if we had all spoken with one voice.
“Do you know where he went, lads?”
We all shrugged. We stayed where we were, but when the man in black went out, we rushed to the glass door and watched him walk across the street and up Springbank Avenue. The day was a haze, and the pavement seemed to shimmer as the man’s figure turned the corner.
“Creeeeeepy!” said Fahim.
“Who the fuck was that?” asked Craig.
“Can you not tell?” said Mukhtar. “Fucking CID of course. Could you not see fuckin’ phone in his trousers?”
The number of our gang varied anywhere between eight and twelve. Some of us were Muslims, some Hindus, some whites. We’d known each other for years, and everyone at some point had argued with everyone else. There was a gang in another street that we pretended to hate, but it was really only boredom and football that united us. Boredom drove our speculation about Steve and his visitor. It was the middle of summer. The days were so hot the smell of melting asphalt hung in the air. In the dry baking hours of June and July we would stand around street corners and petrol station forecourts and argue about anything for entire afternoons.
Steve wasn’t happy to hear about his visitor. He tried to hide it, but we could tell. His jokes were nervous, his questions precise – he wanted to know exactly when the man came, whether anyone was with him. After a minute he went outside to smoke a cigarette and watch the traffic go down Fishergate. We followed him onto the street and asked if he was in trouble, and if there was anything we could do. His free credits had bought all of our loyalty.
“Just go home all of you, will you, lads? Call it a day for today.”
The rejection surprised us, saddened us, but we forgave him. We left – but got Little Anil to follow him uptown in the evening. Anil was Sunil’s younger brother – tiny, transparent, with eyes as sharp as a shoplifter’s. We forced him into a corner and told him what he needed to do.
“Taxis” was always closed on weekends. The fact was unbearable for us. Even though it had only been open for a month, the green office with its video games had taken over our lives. It wasn’t just a meeting point for us. It was a world where we mingled with adults, and monsters, and aliens, and demons. Being outside it was like withdrawing from a drug. For some of us it meant we had to spend time with our families, or work for our relatives, both of which were worse than school. On a disused patch of waste ground at the back of our houses, which we called Private Property because of a shabby, battered sign that hung above a wall there, we sat and talked and planned and argued. None of us realised this would never happen again – a moment in our lives where too much time was actually a problem. We played hide-and-seek, dug up the ground for buried treasure, planned a robbery. Fahim’s brother had a big blue van we could load the machines into and drive them away in. We talked about Steve, and Shaz, and which game was the best one, and what it would be like to have one of those games in our own houses. On Sunday, when we were really bored, some of us walked over to the taxi office and peered into the empty parlour through the slits of shuttered windows.
“What the fuck’s that?” said Craig.
“What’s what?” we all asked.
“Something moved. Listen.”
We listened. For a moment it almost seemed as if a song, a very faint song, was being sung. As soon as we listened intently, however, there was nothing but silence.
“Did you hear that?”
“I didn’t hear fuck all,” said Mukhtar.
We rapped on the windows and shouted. There was no reply. The road behind us was completely silent. We cursed one another and listened again. After ten minutes we gave up and walked away, but when we crossed back across the road later that evening one of the shutters inside the shop had been pulled up.
Steve grew paler and paler. All of us noticed, but none of us dared ask why. When he opened the door on Monday morning, his hand was trembling as he turned the key in its lock. When we all poured inside, he did not open up the machines as we hoped, but just crept to a corner of the room and slumped into a chair like an old man, as though he were carrying around with him some kind of ancient weight. Anil, who noticed everything, saw his black shirt and said it was the same shirt the visitor had been wearing. We all speculated on whether they belonged to some secret Satanic cult. Or maybe the man dressed in black was the Devil, and he had come to collect Steven’s soul, because he was really a thousand years old.
“He’s on fucking drugs,” said Shaz when we asked him. He looked angry and disappointed. “I thought he was straight up, above board. Arsehole.”
We didn’t know what to say, or who to believe. The man dressed in black never came again, but Anil said he saw him once up town, walking towards the bus station. He was talking to two other men in front of the Guild Hall about something very serious. When Anil tried to get closer, the three of them disappeared into a blue Citroen and drove away.
On Tuesday morning, we waited an hour in front of the office for Steve to arrive, but nobody came. The door was locked, and all the windows shuttered with the grey, dirty blinds Shaz used to close the place every evening. We tried to peer in through the windows, but the blades were too tight to see through.
Eventually, someone ran down to Lauderdale Street to get Shaz. It was eleven o’clock and a crowd of kids were starting to gather outside. Our whole gang had told one another what was happening and now we were all here. Mukhtar tried to look cool and pick the lock with a hairpin, but with no success. When Shaz came it was clear he’d been dragged out of bed. He was swearing and cursing and shaking his head.
“Last time I fucking hire a gora. What the fuck was I thinking?”
He told us all to back off and give him some room as he knelt down and pushed his key in the door. When it opened, all of us gasped. The body of a man, rotating gently clockwise at the end of a cord, dangled like a light fitting from the ceiling. On top of the Osma Wars machine lay a note none of us ever got to read.
_ _ _
The suicide was all we talked about in the weeks that followed. Our parents, who wanted to know everything, forbade us from going to the place. Then school started, and Steve’s death passed into myth. As the months went by it seemed to lose its power, like a joke told too many times. The “Taxis” office closed, and became just another shuttered shop on the street. Some local kids must have broke into the place and used it for parties, as Anil and Mukhtar said they saw soft red and green lights some nights in the upstairs windows. If Steve had a funeral nobody ever told us. Soon the months turned into years. Most of our gang broke up as we found jobs and girls and adulthood.
At eighteen, I went to study at a university in the south. It was the farthest one I could find from my hometown. In the middle of the first year I came back for Christmas. The town looked strange after being away from it for three months. As I came down from the station to my house, I walked past “Taxis”. The door was open, as if it was the most natural thing in the world, and sounds of hammering and knocking came from within.
I stepped inside. The whole place was empty. There was the sweet, sticky smell of paint, and also the burnt odour of shaved wood. I looked up, thankful to see that the light fittings had been completely removed. The carpet was the same, though: four faded oblongs of yellow stood where the video games had been. The blinds in the window had all been pulled off. The office was completely stripped bare.
_ _ _
About eight years later I went back to the area to spend a week nearby in Morecambe. A friend lived there, or at least tried to. It was a grey, hopeless town, full of bus shelters and old age, sitting on the edge of a cold, shallow bay that people constantly looked at but no-one ever swam in.
In an amusement arcade on the promenade, I found two of the video games we had devoted so much energy to at “Taxis” – Donkey Kong and Cosmic Alien. They were the same machines – I knew their scratches, their wooden panels, their faded inlays. I recognized the worn, slightly-raised caps of the fire buttons, and the red ball of the control levers. My friend mocked me but I insisted on playing. I pushed a coin into their slots and almost cried at the sound. The red bat-thing still scared me when it turned into a shrieking demon and lunged at my ship.
Steve’s name was still there in both machines. Memorialised – or trapped – in the bleeping, flickering Hall of Fame. I played both machines for about an hour. When I used the little man with a hammer to climb all the ladders and get the girl, I remembered the jokes we’d made about Steve. The flickering character’s resemblance to him was a little bit uncanny.
The next day, when I passed by to play the machines again, the two arcade games were already gone, sent to a place in Fleetwood to be smashed up for parts. The owner wouldn’t say exactly where he’d sent the games off to, but assured me he’d be having some new ones in by the end of the week. I asked him for the name of the firm, but he said he couldn’t remember. He laughed as he said this, and for a moment I thought he might be lying. I tried not to think of Steve again, and for the most part I succeeded. But occasionally I am still woken by nightmares, at two or three in the morning: nightmares where I was trapped in a hollow wooden box, surrounded by muffled, bleeping sounds, and a huge, incandescent demon face hanging right in front of me.
ARTHUR J. MANDAL lives in Eugene, Oregon but spent a large part of his childhood growing up in the UK. Alongside writing he works as an independent craftsman making rings, necklaces and ornaments. His stories have also appeared in 3:AM and the US/UK journal LITRO.
(Image credit: Insert coin by Sebastiano Lo Turco, 2010)