Sunk Cost By Amy Slack

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The road is a long, straight, certain thing, the sort a teacher might claim was built by Roman soldiers in some benevolent act of imperial charity. One side is lined with takeaways; the other, B&Bs. At the end of the road is the sea. It reflects the clouds with a blank indifference, ignoring me.

The air should reek of fried doughnuts and the cries of passengers from half-empty fairground rides, but it is early and most of the tourist attractions have yet to awaken. A breeze rolls in, skittering a crisp packet to a stop beside my foot. It gawps at me, salty and judging. I crush it with my heel.

I am the first person here. I am here before even the girl arrives to unlock the glass doors. Tall girl, all shoulders and flat feet. She’s wearing a red polo neck that hasn’t been properly ironed, leaving the collar to bulge and fold inward like the swollen skin around a mauled hangnail. She gets a good look at me while she reaches for the upper locks.

‘Take your time,’ I say.

She does.

The arcade is a low building, squat and glittering, admitting no daylight inside. I take it all in: the rows of grabby machines, claws suspended in their greed above pillowing character plushies; air hockey tables, their glassy white surfaces punctured and waiting to exhale; boxy retro arcade consoles with deep-set screens and, beside them, a thicket of LCD displays – new to me – with what look to be blown-up versions of smartphone game apps; the dance mat stations; the racing-game stations; the cordoned-off corner for over-18s with their big-money games, the ghost of stale fag ash lingering from the days when it was fine to smoke indoors. The air hums with a dissonant array of beeps, chirps, and voice clips. Suddenly, as if triggered by some unseen hand, I hear the stutter-fire of falling coins. The sound shivers through me and I am alive again.

*

I never cared much for the beach as a child. We came to the seaside every summer, the car boot loaded with bucket and spade, sun-bleached towels, and leaking bottles of sun cream, but I rarely enjoyed spending time on the sand. All those people willingly basting and roasting themselves in the August heat, creating castles that would only be destroyed by the tide rolling in at the day’s end – that is, if they had not already been wrecked by misplaced or malicious feet. I waited as long as I could bear before begging a pound from my father, so that I might escape into the arcade that stood only a short distance away from the beach. He always relented, but only if my mother agreed, and my mother would only agree if my brother, two years my senior, accompanied me. And thus a coin was pressed into each of our palms, sweat-slick and gritted with sand, along with a weary instruction: don’t waste it.

My brother wasted it. He would run straight for the ticket games, the machines that swallowed 10p pieces with ease, promising ribbons of pink tickets to be pleated and hoarded and exchanged for prizes at the big desk with its glass-fronted cabinets of curios. It was all a con. If he was lucky, my brother would earn half a dozen tickets for every 10p he sunk into the slot, and it would take him sixty tickets to buy even the smallest bag of sweets from the desk. A pound’s worth of tickets for a 10p mix-up that he would inhale during the car ride home.

But me, I made my money last. A pound meant fifty 2p coins, meant fifty goes at a slot machine, usually meant at least one decent drop of coins to replenish my supplies. On a good day, I could play for an hour or more with the money my father had given me, without ever giving in and asking for more. I would still be playing by the time our parents beckoned us away, insisting that we needed to leave before our parking ran out.

Next time, I would think, next time. I’d pocket what coins I still had, warm from the slot machines’ incandescent lighting, and dreamt of future winnings.

*

Today, I have come prepared. The change desk is currently unstaffed, so I find a machine that will do the job for me, one that takes notes. I smile to myself at the thrill of it, the thrill of feeding a whole ten-pound note into this change machine, and I wonder if this is what success feels like. The smallest denomination it pays out is pound coins; they drop heavy into my outstretched hands. I decant them into a paper cup – the sort that might be used to serve ice-cream in if a person didn’t have the stomach for a cornet – and seek out another machine, one that will turn my pounds into 2p pieces. Now the coins fall like hail, filling my cup and forcing me to fetch a second before it overflows and scatters my hard-earned money across the patterned carpet. Like alchemy: paper into gold into copper, one note into a waterfall of coins.

I’m good with money. That’s my job, usually. My bosses give me figures, figures that don’t add up, and it’s my job to make them add up, or at least uncover the lie. They like big numbers, walking around with their six-figure salaries and four-figure suits; the small stuff, they leave to me. I rip it all apart, breaking those big numbers down to the pounds and the pence, the receipts crumpled in a forgotten coat pocket, the change lost in the crumbed cracks of an old sofa, and when I find what I find, I report it all to them. It’s as if they don’t appreciate how it all adds up, as though they don’t notice that those fancy suits of theirs are nothing but threads, and those threads are nothing but fibres.

I take my two cups and return to the slot machines. Other people have started to drift in now, blinking at the artificial lighting and the promise of what they can win. They look dazed, unfocused, unrefined.

I choose my quarry with care, slipping from machine to machine until I find a ripe one, a shelf of densely packed copper coins hovering perilously over the abyss. Three slots at the top: I choose the centre, inserting my 2p into place but not letting go, not yet. You don’t rush a thing like this. I watch the shelf ease in, ease out, ease in, exposing an expanse of chrome worn smooth from the tide. I master the rhythm. I slow my breathing until it falls in line with the movement of the shelf – in, out, in, out, in – and then I let go. The coin disappears, reappears beneath glass, and ping-pings against clear plastic prongs until it hits–

It hits the layer of 2ps, missing the empty space by a hair’s breadth.

Never mind. Four hundred and ninety-nine chances left.

*

My brother seemed surprised when I appeared on his doorstep yesterday. I was surprised too, by how grown-up he looked: new haircut, smart shirt rolled back to the elbows. The brother I knew, the one who lived in my head, was a scruffy teenager who stunk of body odour ineffectively masked with noxious sprays.

‘What are you doing here?’ he asked, as if it wasn’t perfectly obvious by the suitcase beside me.

‘Always said I’d come up for a visit,’ I reminded him. ‘See this fancy house of yours. You told me, last Christmas, that I was welcome anytime.’

‘Yeah, but I reckoned you’d call ahead first. Is everything okay? Did you literally just come up on the train?’

‘Well, I hardly lassoed a horse and galloped my way here.’

‘Very funny.’ He studied me for a moment, forehead furrowed.

‘Look, I just thought I’d surprise you,’ I said. If it’s not a good time–’

‘Yeah, like I’m just going to shut the door on you after you’ve come all this way.’ He rolled his eyes theatrically. ‘Get yourself inside. Mind, we’ve not long eaten dinner, and I’m not sure if we’ve got much in you can have. Do Mam and Dad know you’re here?’

He showed me into his kitchen, offered me a drink. It was strange to think: my brother owning his own house, his own cafetière – even a freshly stocked fruit bowl. I selected an apple, plump and green, while he plunged his hands into a sink of washing-up. Steam rose over that nice shirt of his.

‘So, how’s work?’ he asked, running a sponge across the glossy face of a dinnerplate. ‘You making your millions yet?’

I bit into the apple. It was awful: powdery texture, far too soft. ‘I’m taking some time off,’ I said. When he wasn’t looking, I spat out the half-chewed bite I had taken into my hand and tucked it down the bottom of the fruit bowl, beneath the bananas.

‘Good. You work far too much.’

With slow, even pressure, I sank my thumb into the apple’s crumbling flesh. ‘I work as much as I need to. It’s all about putting in the hours, you know? Not all of us are able to land on our feet.’ I glanced around, as if my brother’s wife would choose that precise moment to appear.

‘She’s in the bath,’ he said. ‘Will be down soon, I expect. And hey, don’t talk like that in front of her. The only reason we got that inheritance money was because she was close with her grandad.’

‘Talk like what?’

He held a wine glass beneath the tap and sluiced away the soap suds. ‘You know what I mean.’

When my parents told me that my brother and his wife had bought a house near the coast, I pictured one of those new housing estates, some two-bed semi-detached clone clothed in off-white paint, laminate flooring, and artificial grass. The sort of house bought by people who never went to university, who never cared about moving away to better themselves, who were satisfied with an early marriage and a mediocre job and Facebook memes that hinted at mild alcoholism and a woeful lack of critical thinking. I wasn’t far off: above the breakfast bar, beside the kitchen clock, a glossy wall decal announced that Its always GIN O’Clock! I flinched.

My thumb was now lost inside the apple. As I pulled it free, I heard the tread of my brother’s wife on the stairs. She appeared in the kitchen wearing a matching fluffy bathrobe and slippers, her blonde hair lost somewhere inside a creamy towel curled like ice-cream atop her head.

‘Oh my gosh, hello! How are you doing, love?’

‘I’m fine.’ I pressed my thumb and forefinger together repeatedly, enjoying the tacky grip of half-dried juice on my skin. ‘Just thought I’d pop round.’

And then it was silent, and she was looking at my brother and my brother was looking at her, and the juice on my finger and thumb was starting to irritate me. I licked them clean.

I turned to my brother. ‘Do you remember,’ I asked, ‘when we were kids, how we’d go down to the arcades every summer and play on the machines?’

‘What are you on about?’ he asked.

‘The arcades. Slot machines. Down on the seafront.’

He shrugged. ‘Oh. They were alright, I suppose. Preferred the beach, myself.’

I debated telling them then about the apple, how soft it was. They can be awfully disappointing, apples. All that expectation, all that build-up: cool, crisp, the crunch-and-give of the first bite. Then you bare your teeth to it and discover that it’s shit. I debated telling them this, but I didn’t want to jeopardise my chances of them offering me their spare bedroom for the night, so I said nothing.

*

My tenner outlasts the morning. After sinking my first pound I switch to a neighbouring machine; it’s a vital skill, knowing when to give in and move on. This new machine is far kinder, and the shock of a whole raft of 2ps falling as one into my tray leaves me breathless. I could carry on all day, but my hand starts to shake sometime around noon and I’m reminded that, save for that shit apple, I haven’t really eaten anything in well over a day. Can’t have a tremor in my hand in a place like this. One fleeting moment of unsteadiness and you lose your advantage, send a coin hurtling on top of the shelf instead of landing flat and true behind it. I pocket my winnings and wave to the girl on the desk.

‘This one’s mine,’ I tell her. ‘Keep it for me. I won’t be long.’

Back up the maybe-Roman road. I find the chippy we used to come to when we were little, back when I was too short to reach the countertop without standing on my tiptoes and my brother recited the names of the North Sea fish from a curling laminated poster. The poster is still there in the window, the cod and the haddock and the plaice and the pollock bleached green from the sun. Since I was last here, they’ve opened a sit-in area, all smartly done up with tiled floors and a bubbling tank filled with inedible, living fish right by the door. A waitress leads me to a table. The place is close to full; all around me are balding pensioners pouring overstewed tea from dripping steel spouts, no doubt making the most of the weekday OAP special. I’ve another thirty years to go before I can take advantage of that offer, so I order a portion of chips instead.

While I wait, I check my phone. Five missed calls from my brother. An email notification from HR, too long to fit on the screen: URGENT: Re. Terms of redu… I squeeze the ‘off’ button far longer than necessary, and feel the tension escape my shoulders as the screen blinks into blackness.

My lunch arrives, served on a plate shaped like a fish. The people at work, they would call this tacky. Their lunches are all poke bowls, smoked salmon, soy-milk lattes and activated grains. I used to have to fetch their daily lunch order back when I first started at the company, and it shocked me, it really did, how much people were willing to spend on boxed salads that they could make at home for a pittance. I stopped eating lunch when I got that job; it was easier than having them see me pull soggy tomato sandwiches from my handbag, bleeding with juice.

But I shouldn’t be thinking of all that, not anymore. I pick up a chip – golden, slightly soggy, laced with vinegar – and eat.

My father covered his chips with brown sauce, streaks of it all across the top. My mother preferred ketchup, a neat dollop in the corner of the newspaper. My brother and I, we’d be told to share our portion, and though we were supposed to split it evenly, there’s no way of dividing something like fish and chips perfectly in half. One side ends up with more flesh, the other more batter. The chips: you can count them, divide them, but even if you have an even number there’s still the size of the chips to factor in, and if a person – me, for instance – tried to compare each and every chip against one another, find fairness in it all, it would all go cold before anyone would get the chance to eat. Not that my brother waited to eat. He would start counting before my wooden fork had even split open the cod, throwing my calculations all off.

Today I have been given a steel fork instead of one of those blunt wooden things, but I prefer to eat with my hands. My fingertips taste tangy, metallic, valuable.

By the time the waitress arrives to retrieve my novelty plate, I have eaten exactly half of my chips. I consider asking her to wrap them up to go, as a thank-you gift to my brother for letting me stay, but it’s a daft idea. I would only end up having to carry them around with me all afternoon, keeping them by my side in the arcade and guarding them against theft. And anyway, my brother doesn’t like cold chips. I tell the waitress to clear the plate away.

*

I didn’t tell my brother where I was going when I left his house this morning. He and his wife were in the kitchen. I listened at the door before I entered: they were talking about what time they would be home that evening, what they would have for dinner. A takeaway, possibly. It occurred to me that I didn’t have a clue where either of them worked or how much they earned.

My brother’s wife rose to make me coffee when she saw me. There was already a mug out on the side, waiting for me on the breakfast bar. Its always GIN O’Clock!

‘You know that your sign is missing an apostrophe?’

‘Aye, I suppose you’re right,’ she said. ‘Milk?’

‘I’m not thirsty.’ And there was that look again, between my brother and his wife. The kind of look that preceded tight smiles and awkward questions. I’d seen a similar look only a few days before, between my manager and the HR assistant as they asked me if I was free for a chat.

‘I’m heading out,’ I said, before my brother could say anything. ‘I’ll be back later.’

My brother, my brother. I was the cleverer one. Top marks, or as near to the top as my teachers dared to give me. Him? Cs, the odd B. I went to university, worked hard, packed my CV with extracurriculars that would serve their purpose later, when it was time to apply for the best jobs. That’s what they said to us. Top marks. Extracurriculars. Transferrable skills. Him? He left sixth form after just a few weeks, ended up working in one of those daft apprentice schemes the government give directionless kids so that the unemployment figures stay low. Everything’s a numbers game. And the funny thing was, whenever I called home, my parents would brag about all the money he was making. £2.50 an hour in some kind of factory. ‘He’s doing so well for himself,’ they’d say, and I’d laugh because there he was again, slumping his way towards instant gratification instead of putting in the effort, working methodically towards more valuable goals.

*

When I return to the arcade, my machine has been commandeered by a morbidly obese weirdo with glasses falling off her nose. I grab the nearest staff member.

‘That’s my machine,’ I say, pointing at the interloper.

The lad, a short-arse with patchy stubble whose ultimate ambition in life probably involves achieving the top score in some inane video game, looks at me like he hasn’t got the first clue what’s going on. I repeat myself, enunciating every word.

‘I was playing on that machine this morning. I told your colleague to keep it for me. Now someone else is playing on it.’

‘The machine next to her is free,’ he says, as if I hadn’t noticed that already. I’m hardly going to play on the machine directly beside the one that had sustained me so well this morning, where half of the coins that fat bitch is playing for had belonged to me. I want to tell the little shit this, but he’s already moved on to speak to someone else.

I begin my selection process again, roaming the machines until I find one with real potential on the outermost row of units, near the door. Here, daylight all but reaches my feet; I can almost make out the screams from the fairground rides.

I take a deep breath and lick my coppered fingers one by one, before taking out my remaining coins from this morning and stacking them on the side of the cabinet. 38 in total. Now is the time to focus.

2p into the slot. Clean drop, clean fall. Slots comfortably in between two neighbours, but no onward movement. Take a breath. Next.

I was the one with the good job. Grad scheme, internship. Steady as she goes, up the ladder. And it was just like they told us at university: transferrable skills. Adaptability was key. I softened my accent, laughed at the right jokes, smiled at the right people. First one in the office, last one out. Working, working.

2p into the slot. Clean drop, clean fall. One coin displaced, only to be lost in the crowd below. Take a breath. Next.

I saved what I could. Big city rents, bills, transport, dinner a slice of toast. Count the pennies and the pounds will take care of themselves. Only a matter of time before it all clicked into place. Junior role, then executive. Each time a shiny new job title for my email footer and a fractional nudge up the salary scale.

2p into the slot. Clean drop, clean fall. Three coins dispersed. A cascade. I check down in the tray and find one 2p waiting for me. The rest, it seems, have been swallowed by the jowls of the machine.

2p into the slot.

2p into the slot.

2p into the slot.

That girl, the tall one who gave my machine away, she keeps looking over at me. She’s fixed her collar now but it’s hardly an improvement. She has acne on her forehead, cheek, chin. She needs to exfoliate.

‘Do you mind?’ I say, and I don’t mean to say it as loud as I do, but I say it loud enough to make her jump. She scarpers away, glancing back over her shoulder at me as she disappears behind the grabby machines. Now there’s other people looking.

2p in the slot. I can feel it now, the plunge of it, the fall. I am there, I am here, inside the belly of the machine, the floor beneath me sliding back and forth, sending me all askew. The bulbs watch me and they burn, burning my eyes and my skin and I blink but all I see are milk-blind spots that sail over my vision and cloud my judgement. Budget cuts. That’s what my manager said, as if I didn’t know the budget better than him, better than anyone in the company. He said I could do with a break. Get away, he said. Stay with family. I am under glass and swimming in 2p coins, take care of the pennies and the pounds and the pounds and there’s that girl, that sour-faced hangnail of a teenager, staring through the glass like she has any fucking right to look down on me.

*

He waits for me outside in another one of his smart shirts, this time buttoned securely at the cuff. The weather has turned; the breeze has swollen and the clouds above us are now stone grey, and yet my brother holds in his hands two ninety-nines, each with a flake and dressed liberally with monkey’s blood. He’s been waiting a while: the ice-cream has started to run to milk.

‘Those are a rip-off,’ I say, taking one of the ninety-nines off him before the mess of it stains his cuff. ‘They haven’t cost 99p in years.’

‘I know,’ he says. ‘I did just buy them. And it’s not a rip-off. It’s inflation, not to mention the income insecurity that must come with running an ice-cream van. You of all people must understand that.’

I keep quiet, licking the drips and the 2p tang from my hand. We start to walk, my brother and I: not back along the maybe-Roman road, or down onto the sand, but along the wide path that divides the beach from everything else: the fairground rides, the town, reality.

‘I reckoned I would find you in there,’ he says, extracting his flake and taking a bite from the ice-cream end. ‘What I hadn’t reckoned on was you getting banned from the arcade.’

‘I’ve not been banned. They just said it would be better if I left.’

‘You’ve been banned.’

I still had four coins left to play with when the security man came to usher me out. Four chances, just sat there waiting to be played. Even worse than that: as he led me away, I heard that heavenly sound of a cascade tumbling out. Ten, twelve 2ps, it sounded like. I asked the man if I could return for them, and he just laughed. Some other lucky little shit will have probably snatched up my winnings by now.

Before the ocean winds whip away the last of the fairground sounds, my brother polishes off his ninety-nine. I’ve barely licked the sauce off mine. It clots on my tongue, sweet enough to set my molars aching.

‘Not hungry?’ he asks.

‘I had a big lunch,’ I say. ‘And anyway, I want to make it last.’

It’s only a matter of time before he asks about my job. I don’t know how I’ll answer. My whole life, I’ve worked hard, done my time and plenty more besides. This is just a temporary blip. I’ll get back on my feet, find something new.

‘You deserve good things, you know,’ he says. ‘You don’t need to make it last. Eat the bloody ice-cream, or else it’ll melt before you get to properly enjoy it.’

‘What if I happen to like eating ice-cream like this? I don’t judge you for having a crap taste in kitchen décor or for buying shit apples. Don’t judge me for having impulse control.’ To prove it, I throw my ninety-nine onto the beach. Half-melted ice-cream splatters across the sand.

My brother stops walking, and I do too. He looks at me like the girl in the arcade did when she called for security.

‘Since when did you get to be so sour? Jesus Christ.’

‘Oh, just leave me the fuck alone, would you?’

For a moment he is silent, mouth open, gawping at me. ‘I just,’ he says, struggling for words. ‘I just, I just don’t know…’

It’s not fair how he gets to walk away from me the way he does, all dressed up in his smart shirt that he wears to do God-knows-what job where he earns enough money to afford a mortgage and nice coffee. He doesn’t turn back either, not even when I slip off my shoes and step out onto the sand, sinking my toes into its depths. It’s not so bad, the beach, even if the wind has blown the contents of an overflowing bin towards me, the crisp packets and the grease-soaked chip papers and the cans and the plastic bottles and all the shit of the seaside. The tide is coming in and the rubbish is rushing to meet it. I could run after it all, scoop it up and slot it back into the bin, one after another after another, but instead I search my pockets and find a 2p piece, lint-fluffed and dull bronze. It tastes ever so good.

#

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Amy Slack

Amy Slack is a writer and editor from the north-east of England. After studying for an English degree in Belfast, she now lives and works in London, where she gently reminds people that there is life beyond the M25. Amy has just completed an MA in Creative Writing at Birkbeck, University of London, and her short fiction has been published by Fairlight Books, the Mechanics’ Institute Review, Honey and Lime, and Flashback Fiction, among others. In 2020, she was shortlisted for the Belfast Book Festival Mairtín Crawford Award and the TSS Cambridge Prize for Flash Fiction.

Amy can be found on Twitter @amyizzylou.

Previous publications:

The Company of Mirrors (shortlisted, Belfast Book Festival Mairtín Crawford Award 2020)

Eyes and Ears and Mouth and (shortlisted, TSS Cambridge Prize for Flash Fiction 2020)

All The King’s Horses (Fairlight Books)

Image by myshoun on Pixabay

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