A Coin-Operated Christmas
"Go home!" shouted the old man. "We're closed!"
"Just one more go, I've got..."
"No! The games are all rubbish anyway!"
And with that the old man bolted the doors of the arcade shut, as its only customer was sent off into the cold night.
It was 30 years this December that Old Man Edge had died and left the business to his only son, Tiberius. 30 long, cold years. History records no unusually lengthy or particularly chilly periods, but memories have a way of playing tricks on you. And this was the coldest yet according to the remembrance of Tiberius Edge, himself an old man now, and a man too concerned about his welcoming robe and brandy to care about the wants of his few customers.
The arcade business was slow. History records this as fact. The children would rather stay at home than visit Mr Edge's decaying amusement centre and Tiberius didn't much care to visit it either. Running the arcade was a hindrance to his preferred business of getting drunk, and its ever-shrinking revenues were a source of anger and despair.
Some said Tiberius Edge had spent so long telling the kids that games were rubbish they'd started to believe him and stayed away. Other, more thoughtful souls, pointed to two things; Edge's lack of investment in the place and a general malaise within the machine making business.
Inside was decay. To Mr Edge it looked much the same as it did when he took over 30 years previously, but, as is the way when you're exposed to the same thing every day, he had been blind to the crumbling. Some disrepair he knew about, but was too financially prudent to effect the required fixing.
"It would not be financially prudent" he explained once, after a small boy had requested Mr Edge make repairs to the malfunctioning buttons of his favourite game.
Everything was old and malfunctioning. The last time a new machine was purchased for the arcade was before Tiberius inherited it from his father. It was a wonder he had any customers left at all. Never mind. It was Christmas, and Tiberius Edge had taken the opportunity to have himself a day off.
"When do we open up after Christmas, sir?" asked Bob Crivens, Edge's deputy and the only remaining employee of the failing arcade business.
Mr Edge finished bolting the doors and looked up.
"Open up? What do you mean open up?"
"After Christmas Day and Boxing Day, sir. When do we re-open?"
"What madness do you speak of?" blustered Tiberius, "opening up implies closing. We shan't be closing at all! You'll be here to take care of things in my absence"
Although he'd heard the words, Bob could scarcely believe them. Work here? This empty dump? On Christmas Day? No one enters on a normal day, so surely the arcade at Christmas, the time one usually spends with familly and loved ones, would simply be more desolate and pointless!
"Sir? We're opening on Christmas Day?"
"Of course we are! Yesterday we took twelve pounds. Twelve pounds! That barely covers your wages! Today we've taken but eleven! If it weren't for that small boy we wouldn't have taken a penny! We open tomorrow. And the day after and the day after that!"
And that was that. Bob Crivens half smiled, adjusted his hat and walked away, knowing he'd spend Christmas alone in a decrepit old hall surrounded by echoes, broken machines and his own sadness. It was not going to be a good year for the Crivens family.
The small boy so rudely ejected from Mr Edge's amusement arcade was Thomas Beckinsworth. Thomas was nine and one half years old, and were people given to celebrating half-birthdays, today would be his nine and a half-th seeing as he was born into this world on June 24. Only Thomas noticed this fact, and he didn't deem it worthwhile of mentioning to anyone else.
He spent a lot of time in Mr Edge's arcade. It was like a second home. He knew its workings and machines so much better than its proprietor did, he knew the buttons that didn't work, knew which direction sticks were faulty, and had completed nigh-on every game the old dump contained.
Tomorrow would be Christmas morning. Surely after failing to receive any presents for his nine and a half-th birthday yesterday, the next day would be a joy for little Thomas!
In fact, considering that Thomas' parents had separated some nine months ago, he was dreaming of a double Christmas! Twice the dinners, twice the presents, twice the sweets and twice the fun!
Thomas lived with his father, who had moved in Mrs Simmons the baker's wife. Apparently because of her exemplary baking skills, she was to be considered Thomas' new mother. His old mother, a perfectly good mother as far as Thomas was concerned, had moved across town to move in with Steve, with the two new families sharing Thomas between them as neighbours might share a lawnmower.
So, with the hopes of a double Christmas awaiting, it was off to bed for young Thomas Beckinsworth.
And so to bed for Tiberius Edge. For a man owning a video game arcade his house was remarkably free of the trappings of the 21st - or even 20th - century. It was a simple terraced house, and, in keeping with the condition of his workplace, was decrepit, dark and miserable.
No matter. Peeling wallpaper bothers you not when you've a good glass or three of brandy inside you. And so, as ever, Tiberius climbed his stairs slowly, drunkenly and ready to collapse in his single bed.
But there was an annoyance tonight. A ringing sound in his left ear. Tiberius rammed a finger in it and rolled over. It stopped, momentarily, but then came a ringing sound in his right ear! What misery! The other finger went in the right side, was poked around, then the old man forced his head down and attempted once again to sleep.
But no! Left ear, right ear, left ear, right - the ringing wouldn't stop! Ring, ring, ring, ring! Left, right, left, right. And it got louder, and louder, and louder, and louder until he could take no more.
"Stop it! Stop it, stop it, stop it! What is wrong with me? Get this infernal racket out of my ears!"
And with that Tiberius sat bolt upright in bed, only to see a ghostly vision standing in his doorway. It was a blue creature, some four feet tall, naked save for a pair of red shoes and white gloves.
"What the... curse this cheap brandy!" spat Edge, as he threw the glass toward the imaginary apparition. But the blue creature dodged the glass with amazing speed and came to the side of Edge's bed.
"Mr Tiberius Edge?" asked the blue hedgehog-like thing, in a casual manner that suggested it were perfectly normal for blue hedgehog-like things to appear in one's bedroom on Christmas Eve.
"Er, who wants to know?"
"The Ghost of the Christmas Past and Future!"
Now this was all a bit much for Mr Edge, causing him to have at this point what one of the gossiping ladies from the Post Office might call a 'funny turn'. He slumped down in his bed, half in sickness half in fear, hoping the ringing and blue apparition might disappear if he were to stop looking at it.
"Tiberius Edge, you must come with me" said the hedgehog, outstretching a gloved hand.
"I very much will not!" snorted Edge,
"Then I shall take you" said the apparition. A massive golden ring slowly appeared above Edge's bed, into which a terrified man was dragged by the blue creature. They floated. They flew, they floated some more and eventually came to rest.
"Where are we?" asked Mr Edge, his whole body surrounded by mist and a gloopy fog.
"Look!" and with one swoop of his three-fingered hand, the hedgehog wiped the dirt from an old farmhouse window and beckoned Tiberius to peer inside.
"We're somewhere you ought to remember"
And so came Christmas to the Beckinsworth/Simmons household. Young Thomas already knew that his father's new woman was against Christmas trees because of her odd religion, but his father had assured him that the giving of presents was still OK.
However, with no Christmas tree, where would the presents be?! There was nothing at the foot of his bed, nothing beside the fireplace, no presents on the doormat, nothing anywhere! Around the house he looked, opening doors, looking in cupboards, peeking under tables and chairs. But nothing! Ah, the bathroom cabinet! The presents must be in there! Up he went, and into the bathroom he snuck. Let's see... strange tissues... tubes of cotton wool... bottles...
"What are you doing?" shouted Mrs Simmons, Thomas' new mum. Thomas jumped, his heart nearly stopping with terror. "That's MY cupboard! Get out of there!". For a new mother, Mrs Simmons certainly wasn't very considerate of a little boy's natural curiosity.
"What's going on here?"
It was his dad.
"The boy was looking through my cupboard!" complained Mrs Simmons, pulling a face that suggested looking through a cupboard was the worst possible crime one could ever commit. 'Death Penalty For Cupboard Lookers!' said the sign Thomas imagined her carrying, a joke that caused the boy to smile to himself.
"It's not funny! Why are you laughing? My privacy!" and with that, Mrs Simmons retreated to the bedroom, no doubt to ensure the integrity of the wardrobes, drawers and storage chests in there had not also been violated.
"Here, take this" said his dad in his best angry voice.
Thomas' father put his hand into his trouser pocket and removed a one pound coin.
"Here's your Christmas present, now run along to your mum's house. Her and Steve are expecting you".
Thomas didn't dare argue. Parents being the way they are, he thought, some arrangement had no doubt been reached between the two that Thomas was unaware of. So off he went, across town to spend Christmas with his mum and her new boyfriend.
"Look" said the blue apparition, pointing through the old window to a family and fireplace scene within. "What's going on in there?"
Mr Edge looked for a while, squinting (he was too financially prudent to buy the eyeglasses he needed).
"It's a boy. He's opening a present" he shrugged.
"Who's the boy, Tiberius?"
"I don't know! He's a fat so-and-so, I can tell that much"
"Who is the boy, Tiberius?" asked the blue creature again, his eyes narrowing as attitude oozed from his soul.
"Wait... I recognise that fireplace. It's... no... yes! It's me!"
"Yes, Tiberius, it's you. Aged nine. And what's the present you're opening?"
Tiberius looked on in newfound awe. His young self was opening a box some two feet square. Whatever it was he looked very happy to receive it.
"It's... it's my beloved old Mega Drive! Yes, what a Christmas that was!"
"Yes it is, and yes it was. And where is your Mega Drive now, Tiberius?"
Tiberius thought for a moment. He didn't know. He felt sad. All the happy memories of his Mega Drive had just flooded back, only to be replaced by the guilt of turning his back on his beloved toy. He knew it was no doubt sold or thrown away, but couldn't bring himself to say as much.
"Now, let's take you to the future" said the blue being. "That will make you sadder still"
It was the first white Christmas for 26 years, but Thomas didn't even notice. In fact he would have cursed the snow, were it not for the fact that he was only nine and a half years old and didn't know any proper cuss words.
After an hour of walking he found himself at mother and Steve's house. He knocked.
"What the... oh, it's you. Hello. Er, what do you want?" asked the man who opened the door. It didn't look like Steve. No doubt mother had decided a different man was needed for Christmas. Perhaps this was the 'Santa Claus' character that visited the other children each year.
"Anyway" continued this new man, "aren't you supposed to be with your dad today?"
"I'm not sure" whispered Thomas, in a voice sadly too weak and low for the man to really hear.
"Yes, you are! I remember now, here..."
The man reached into his pocket and took out a one pound coin.
"Take this and go back to your dad's house, there's a good boy. Your mummy's getting cold and I really ought to tend to her"
And with that the second door of the day was closed in Thomas' face. Instead of a double Christmas, it looked like there wouldn't be a Christmas at all.
He'd go to the arcade, that's what he'd do. His newly acquired pounds would keep him entertained and out of everyone's bother. It would be like a normal day, which considering how bad Christmas Day had been so far, would be a very good thing indeed.
The blue creature turned yellow, increased its speed and dragged Tiberius through time and space. Now he was in the future. A bad future. The music in the background went from being happy and chirpy to being a bit like techno.
"What do you see now, Tiberius?"
At first, the answer was nothing. But then darkness gave way to a buzzing sound. A rough buzzing, like a swarm of wasps. No, wait, it was car engines. Millions of them, all joining together in the ether to make a huge, desolate sigh.
"What are the children playing now, Tiberius?"
Tiberius Edge looked through the windows of the children of the future. The scenes were sad. No one smiled with the same joy young Tiberius had smiled, no one looked happy. Everyone, it seemed, knew what they were getting and were resigned to their fate.
A hundred, a thousand, ten thousand, a MILLION - everyone was playing the same thing.
It was Need For Speed Underground 7.
"Do they look happy, Tiberius? Do the children look as happy as you did all those years ago?"
"No, no, they look... sad. Why have they all got angry faces? Aren't they having fun?"
"No, Tiberius, games aren't about having fun any more"
"Yes they are!" blurted Tiberius. "My Mega Drive was about having fun! That was great fun, the most fun ever! Those games are as dear to me now as they were back then!"
The hedgehog looked sad, his attitude replaced by a hunched look of resigned misery.
"But now, Tiberius, what are games about now?"
Tiberius thought. He thought some more, then he looked sad too.
"Money" he replied. "Games are about making money".
"One day he'll close this forsaken Hell" Bob Crivens muttered to himself, as he unlocked the front door and prepared for another long, profit-free day. A profit-free Christmas Day at that, and not one word of a bonus or pay rise for working the one day no one ever works.
"What was that? Who's there?"
Bob noticed a person. No, not a person, a boy. There was a boy standing beside the locked arcade door.
"What did you just say?" asked the boy.
"I...nothing. Nothing at all" said Bob, adjusting his hat. "What are you doing here? You were here yesterday, weren't you?"
"Yes sir, I was"
Bob Crivens paused for a while to adjust his hat again. It was perfectly placed and comfortable, covering his ears just how he liked it, but the act of adjustment gave him time to consider what a small boy might be doing standing outside an amusement arcade on Christmas morning.
"Shouldn't you be at home?" Crivens, his hat newly adjusted, asked the boy.
"Nope" was Thomas's reply, a reply Bob had no ready answer for.
His hat suffering another needless adjustment, Bob continued to unlock the door and opened up.
"Well you'd better come in then".
Tiberius and the blue beast looked at the sad children of the future for all of that Christmas Eve. They flew around visiting others, but the story was always the same - stoney faced youths playing soulless games that brought them no joy.
If this is the future of gaming, though Tiberius Edge to himself, then I sure as day don't want to be a part of it.
"Can this future be changed?" asked Tiberius, eventually of the hedgehog, when the sad faces of a joyless world became too much to bear.
"Why would you want to change it? Are you not making a tidy living of the industry as it stands?"
"Well yes," replied the old man, "but..."
"But it's not the same?"
"No," sighed Edge. "Can the happiness ever return to games?"
The hedgehog slowly smiled.
"Yes, yes it can" said the blue creature. "All I need is someone to help me. Do you want to help me, Tiberius?"
For two people seemingly so keen to enter a place, they now moved very slowly. Crunching snow into the stringy patches that were once carpet, the man and boy entered the old, familiar arcade.
But something was wrong. This was not the same familiar arcade. Bob knew it and Thomas knew it straight away. Had they been robbed? There were empty spaces! Pale walls with dirty outlines where machines used to be, gaps and a huge space cleared in the centre of the room for one large cabinet.
"There's a new machine! There's a new machine!" shouted the boy, as he ran to see what new joys awaited.
There was indeed a new machine. Bob had long since given up reading the trade journals, seeing as he expected every day at Tiberius Edge's arcade to be his last, so had no idea what it was.
The shiny red seats, brilliant yellow logos, massive screen and vibrant colours were unlike anything he'd ever seen. The boy, however, he knew.
But the boy was saying nothing. The boy, it seemed, had been struck dumb. Thomas stood there, looking, just looking, staring at this new machine.
Bob, as Bob's do, adjusted his hat.
"It's a fine machine all right, I'll give it that" he said, as, still, Thomas stood in awe-struck silence and Bob examined the shiny new hardware.
"Crikey!" exclaimed Bob, "it's two pounds a go! In my day no one would've paid two pounds for a go for anything! Not even Maureen Swithins charged as much as two pounds for a go! What on Earth was Mr Edge thinking? Such an unusual purchase!"
Thomas reached into his pocket and took out his two pound coins.
"Can I have a go?" he asked.
Before Bob even had a chance to adjust his hat and think of a response, Thomas was sitting in the seat of this strange new machine and starting a game.
"Mr Edge, sir! Mr Edge!"
Tiberius opened one eye, to check whether he really had just been awoken by some street urchin shouting his name, or if it was merely a horrid nightmare, a continuation of the horrid nightmare he'd had the previous evening.
"Mr Edge! The queues! The queues, Mr Edge!"
It was worse than a nightmare, it was Bob Crivens daring to waken him on Christmas morning.
"Look, Mr Edge, Look!"
Very slowly, as if to prove he were not about to be impressed by anything, especially the sort of thing that would impress a fool like Bob Crivens, Tiberius rolled out of bed, put on his dressing gown and ambled to the window.
There was indeed a rather impressive queue, from the old church on the left, right along High Street, all the way down to the corner of Burch Crescent, where, presumably, it carried along out of sight. Nothing worth waking an old man on Christmas morning, but an impressive view nonetheless.
"The machine, sir! They're queuing for the machine!"
"The machine, Crivens? What machine? Has Mrs Crivens been a little too generous with the brandy today?"
"The new machine, sir! The new one!"
There was no new machine. Tiberius knew that. His father was the last man to buy a new machine, and there was no way the current sorry financial state of the arcade would stand the purchasing of a new machine. It must be a joke. An evil joke at that, such as it was being played out in such a public manner on Christmas Day.
"Mr Crivens, I do declare you are a madman. Now leave me be and get back to your work. If any change is missing due to your failure to attend the arcade, you'll be looking for a new job come Boxing Day!"
"But Mr Edge, sir, there's no need to worry about change. We've already taken several thousand pounds!"
Now, if there was one thing sure to make Mr Tiberius Edge move slightly quicker on a cold morning it was the mention of several thousand pounds.
"Several thousand pounds?" asked Tiberius, a few seconds later, now fully dressed, out of his house and walking briskly beside Bob Crivens in the direction of his arcade.
"Yes sir! It's the new machine, sir, once word got out thanks to that boy, well... it's chaos!"
And it was chaos indeed. Mothers and fathers, husbands and wives, grandfathers and grandmothers, all were queuing up for a go on this new machine that had magically appeared at Mr Edge's arcade.
"It was supposed to be two pounds a go, but I put it up to four and still everyone wanted to play! So I stuck it up to a fiver - and still they come! You'll be rich, Mr Edge, rich!"
Tiberius paused briefly to do the maths, but he knew there was no point.
"It's not about the money any more Mr Crivens" said Tiberius, purposefully, as he strode towards the new machine with a newfound attitude of cool.
"Mr Crivens, set the machines to... FREE PLAY!"
"Free play, Mr Edge?" What on God's earth is free play?"
"Free play, Mr Crivens! Let the kids play for free! Here, I'll show you"
And with that Tiberius reached behind the OutRun2 machine, reset it, and held down a button to bring up a menu screen. He selected Free Play, paused for a moment, smiled and activated the option.
"But Mr Edge! We'll lose hundreds! Thousands... millions perhaps!"
"Bob, some things are more important than making money. Look around you. See the happy faces, Bob. You remember that, Bob? Do you, Bob? It's fun, Bob. FUN! People are having fun! Remember, Bob? Remember what that was like?"
As poor, bewildered Bob tried to remember what fun was like, Tiberius unlocked the cash compartment of this new machine and started handing back the coins to those that had already paid.
"Why, this OutRun2 must surely be the most important game of all-time!"
"You'll never know that half of it, Bob. You'll never know"
Then a hedgehog appeared for a bit and there was a ringing sound and everyone laughed and thought about how great OutRun2 is. The end.