Part two of Everyone a Winner
Debbie shuffled the cold, heavy coins in her hand as she approached the machine. She was determined to win this time. Ever since Katie and Jade had come back from their holidays, they had been showing off the plushy character keyrings they had attached to their schoolbags. Debbie’s family could never afford to go to an amusement park like that in the UK, let alone in a another country. They had holidays, yes, but her father seemed determined to make sure that every family holiday they had was also a learning experience for her and her brother, Martin. He was eight, and firmly in his ‘dinosaur’ phase. Sure, Debbie had gone through a similar period when she had been his age. But she was much older now, well into secondary school, almost thirteen. Monster lizards from millions of years ago — and their ageing movie franchise — had little appeal.
She slotted the coin and the machine’s music turned up to acknowledge her. The start button flashed. Debbie didn’t press it right away — she needed to make sure that she was ready. She’d had her eye on one of the ducks. It was different to the characters the other girls had. She liked the female duck — absurdly dressed as it was, looking more like a vintage 1940’s outfit. She picked a likely target, and checked it from all angles, the front and side windows. She knew from experience that the view through the toughened glass was slightly out — like looking at something under water — but couldn’t remember the name of the effect that her science teacher had used to explain it.
When she felt ready, she took a deep breath, exhaled slowly, and hit the button.
Once the button had been pressed, she knew she only had a few seconds to push the forwards and sideways buttons to get the claw into the correct position above the toy. She pressed the sideways button whilst looking through the front, moving to the side, with her arm at full stretch on the forwards button, to be sure that it was perfectly placed. She released the button, and the claw swung back and forth as it came to an abrupt stop. Her heart pounded in her chest. What if the claw kept swinging on the way down? She was sure that she had positioned it right — but hadn’t accounted for this.
The machine music built to a crescendo as the claw snapped open and descended. Debbie had picked this particular one as it was face — or beak — down, and, so she thought, the claw had more of the body to grab onto. It was on target, and she was sure that this was her chance — but then she caught her breath as the claw hit the duck and continued to release, the cable going slack.
The metal fingers whirred closed — looking too flimsy to lift anything, let alone a plush toy keyring. The cable tightened, taking up the slack, and the duck started to lift — but something was holding her down, it looked like she would be dragged out of the mechanical hand — but then it pulled free — not only was she safely aboard, one of the fingers had gone through the keyring of another toy — the male duck. He swung back and forth at then of the short silver chain, his arms and beak open wide in surprise, or exultation.
The claw moved over the box that was the mouth of the prize chute and opened. Both toys were released, but as they fell they collided. The male duck fell straight down the chute; the female hit the plastic edge of the box — and stuck fast. Somehow the rough edge of the plastic had snagged her hair bow.
“No!” cried Debbie, banging on the glass to try and dislodge it. But she didn’t even move. Meanwhile, at Debbie’s knees, the prize door was flashing, indicating a winner. Debbie disappointedly pulled the sprung door open and retrieved the duck she didn’t want. Well, she thought to herself, she had won something. She had a couple more coins in her pocket but her luck for the day had already been spent. And besides, even though she didn’t really like the male duck, it was still a character that her classmates didn’t have, and rather than just walking into a shop and buying it, she had won it.
She tucked her trophy into her schoolbag and put the coins back in her purse. When she got home, she’d have to find a suitable place on her old schoolbag to attach it — to properly show it off tomorrow morning.
The next day, she decided to play it cool. The toy dangled proudly from the ring that attached the shoulder strap to her bag. She knew that some of the other girls had noticed, and smiled to herself. At break-time, Jade and Amelia came over. Debbie said Hi but didn’t mention the key ring, though she’d put the bag on the desk with that end on deliberate display.
“What’s this?” said Jade, suddenly, grabbing the duck and pulling his chain taut. “Where did you nick that from then?”
“What?” said Debbie. “Oh, that. I won it in the claw machine at the arcade. First try!”
“Liar. You never,” said Amelia, sneering. “That machine’s fucking impossible.”
Jade giggled at the cuss word. Debbie tried to ignore it.
“No, I really did. In fact I almost won two of them, but the other one got stuck in the machine.”
“I bet,” said Jade. “In fact, if you’re so good at it, why don’t we all go there after school and you can get us all one.”
“Yeah, sounds like a plan,” said Amelia. “But we left our money at home today, so you’ll have to lend us. If that’s OK?” she said winking at Jade.
“Yeah, all right, as long as you pay me back. It’ll be fun!” said Debbie, smiling.
“Oh yeah, no problem, we’ll pay you all right, won’t we Jade?”
“Yeah!” said Jade, stifling a giggle. “We’ll right pay you back!”
All day Debbie was excited. She was going out after school with Jade and Amelia! When the other girls saw that — and she was also cool — then they wouldn’t be so nasty to her anymore. Especially if she was friends with Jamelia. They would look after her if the other girls tried to bully her again. She could tell Mom and Dad that she had made some new friends too — they’d been worried about that, and that long talk they’d had after the last parents evening… she shuddered to remember it. It had been so embarrassing! Besides, wasn’t everyone always being told to spend less time on their phones and more time reading? So what if her best friend was the school librarian?
At lunch, she went to the library as usual. Mrs. Doyle was there, and let her into the tiny office where she spent most of her day. The school wasn’t an old building by any means, but this room always had that musty smell of old books, something that Mrs. Doyle had confided to Debbie that she quite liked, and Debbie did too. She said that it was the smell of learning — and also escape. That smell could start wondrous adventures or trips of scientific discovery. And yet, every time the Head made one of her infrequent visits, the very next day an air freshener would appear stuck to the doorframe. And within minutes of Mrs. Doyle’s arrival, they would just as mysteriously disappear. There was even a mark on the doorframe where the paint had been stripped by all those little sticky plastic pads on the air fresheners.
“You’ll never guess what!” said Debbie, getting her sandwiches out of her bag. As she did, the little stuffed duck swung back and forth on his little chain, arms outstretched as if trying to save himself.
“Where did you get that?” said Mrs. Doyle. She knew the family didn’t have the means to go on that kind of holiday.
“I won it — at the arcade! Great isn’t it! On the first go!”
“Can I have a look?” said Mrs. Doyle, putting on her reading glasses. She kept her glasses on a chain around her neck. When she got the job, her husband had bought the chain as a present — he said that it was the mark of a true librarian. She had acquiesced, though protested (but I”m only 34!) at the time, but it had been really useful.
She cradled the little doll in her hand. It stared open-beaked at the ceiling, like a patient in a dentist’s chair. She looked automatically at the label to see if it had the international safety mark, which it did. But although it claimed to be authentic, she could see that it patently wasn’t. But there was something else about it — it felt somehow, wrong, but she couldn’t identify what it was that gave her that impression.
“Very nice,” she said, letting the toy fall back on his little metal tether.
“Jade and Amelia like it too — they want me to get one for them — we’re going after school and…”
“Jamelia?” Mrs. Doyle knew that school policy banned indulging in the children’s nicknames for the teachers and each other, but this one had stuck even in the staff room. If there was ever a report of bad behaviour, it was never the one of them in isolation, it was always both. “You know you shouldn’t go out with those girls — they’re not your friends you know — and you really don’t want friends like…”
“But they are the coolest girls in the class — in the whole year even. If I make friends with them, then…”
“I know it seems like that will work, but it won’t. What about Wendy and Hermione? They’re really nice. Weren’t you friends with them last term?”
“Yes but… they’re nerds. And their parents are nerds too? Fancy being called after a character in a book!” said Debbie, opening her crisps.
“You should get back with them, really. Those are the kind of friends who’ll be with you when you need them, not Jamelia.”
“Everybody says bad things about them,” said Debbie, meaning her parents and an unguarded conversation she’d overheard in the corridor outside the staff room. “But aren’t we supposed to be kind to them so that they have a chance to be nice and change the way they behave? Aren’t we supposed to respect them too?”
“Well, yes,” said Mrs Doyle, feeling slightly wrong-footed, “but in the same way you respect a snake… or a wasps’ nest, do you see? Do you remember the story of the scorpion and the frog?”
Debbie finished her crisps and pulled the straw off her juice box. “Yes, but…”
“Who will be paying for this trip to the arcade, did they mention anything about that?”
“Erm… no…” said Debbie, sucking on her straw and looking away.
“Come on, Debbie! What were you saying about respect? Now promise me, you’ll go straight home after school — and this afternoon at break you’ll say hello to Wendy and Hermione — ok?”
That afternoon, Mrs. Doyle took some flexitime and found herself in the cafe across from the school gates. She watched the children flooding out, some meeting parents, some racing away on bikes, some in clumps walking off to the bus stops. Debbie came out with Wendy and Hermione, all three happy and talking, and for a minute Mrs. Doyle thought that her work here was doneand finished the last cold dregs of her tea in preparation for going home herself. But as she put the cup back in the saucer, she saw Debbie waving goodbye to the other girls and waiting by the gate, looking at her watch. If she was going home, she would have gone with the others to catch the 37 bus.
“Oh, Debbie!” she sighed.
Sure enough, after ten minutes, Jamelia came walking out, arm in arm. But walking wasn’t the right word, Mrs. Doyle thought — sashaying — that was it.
Debbie greeted them excitedly. They were dismissive. Mrs. Doyle couldn’t hear the exchange, but could imagine how it went. Her blood started to boil. Why were there people like this in every year, in schools everywhere, across generations? What were teachers not learning after thousands of years that this behaviour still went on? At least, that’s how she justified her rising blood pressure and the way her fingers were slowly balling into tight fists. Inside, invisible to her, were all those suppressed memories of hair pulling, spitting, abuse and actual violence that had been meted out to her and her friends at school. The reason why her library was open as a refuge to kids like Debbie.
And today, it stops.
She got up and pulled her coat off the back of her chair. The girls were now walking in the direction of the high street, Debbie skipping excitedly in front of her tormentors. Mrs. Doyle decided to follow at a discreet distance, on the other side of the street.
They went into the arcade, taking the entrance that wasn’t marked 18 or overthat lead to the gambling machines. But weren’t the machines in there also just an entry to gambling?
Mrs. Doyle followed them in. The clattering, jangling noise combined with the electronic fairground music was deafening, as stifling as the thick humid atmosphere. She unfastened her coat, and tried to find the machine the girls had gone to. After a couple of minutes of slowly stalking through the aisles, occasionally standing on tiptoe and craning her neck to see over the taller machines, she saw them.
Everyone a Winner! declared the name of the machine.
“Not today,” thought Mrs. Doyle.
They hadn’t put any money in yet. Jamelia were looking through the glass, picking which of the toys they wanted Debbie to get for them. They weren’t picking the easiest targets — on purpose.
“I don’t think the claw will go back that far…” said Debbie, apologetically.
“You said you were good at this machine, didn’t she Amelia?”
“Fucking right she did. If she can’t get it, she’ll just have to keep trying until she does. If she doesn’t win, we won’t be paying her back, will we Jade?”
“No — and we might have to take some more money we can buy ourselves one.”
“I don’t… I don’t have that money…” said Debbie, her smile fading.
“Then we’ll have yours for a start!” said Amelia, reaching for Debbie’s bag.
“No you don’t!” said Mrs Doyle, stepping up from behind another machine.
The girls turned — but only Debbie jumped in guilty surprise. The others’ expressions of shock turned almost immediately to sneering disgust.
“What the fuck are you doing here, Miss?” said Amelia. “This where you spend your benefit, is it?”
“No Amelia. She likes little girls, don’t you Miss? That’s why all the nerds and rejects go to her room every day!”
“You filthy little…” The words escaped from her mouth before she could stop them, and she instantly realised she’d fallen into the trap set for her.
“What you calling her Miss?” said Amelia. “A filthy what? Whore? I heard her say filthy whore, didn’t you Jade?”
“Yeah, that’s what she said. You filthy little whore, just like your moms. You heard it too, didn’t you Debbie?”
“You leave her out of this,” said Mrs. Doyle, barely able to control her anger. In her unseen, uncontrollable subconscious, she was twelve years old again.
“Shame you’ll never work again, isn’t it, Miss? All your little nerd friends will have nowhere to hide anymore. And you’ll never be allowed anywhere near a school. What will you do Miss? Get lots of cats? I bet she has lots of cats already, eh, Amelia? That’s why she stinks of cat piss.”
Both the girls stepped up to her now, almost her height, she realised how big they both were for the first time. Easily the biggest and tallest girls in Debbie’s class, no wonder they found it so easy to intimidate their victims.
Debbie backed off and bumped into the machine behind her. Tears sprang into her eyes, too frightened to think.
“No,” said Mrs. Doyle. You don’t win. Not today. Not ever.” She looked down at her right hand. Her phone was on — recording video.
“You fucking bitch!” said Jade, following her gaze, her face a mask of hate. “Give me that fucking phone!”
Mrs Doyle stepped back, a smile starting on her face. “It’s a bit late for that — it’s facetiming the Head.”
Debbie saw the knife appear in Amelia’s hand. But even before she began to scream, Amelia had begun stabbing upwards, again, and again, and again. At first there was no blood, just the sound of Amelia hitting Mrs Doyle in the stomach. Then suddenly, the front of Mrs. Doyle’s coat was dark red, and the punching became a wet, squelching sound.
Mrs. Doyle felt no pain. She was unable to speak, almost paralysed by shock, and the realisation that she was being murdered, right here, in the arcade, on a cloudy Thursday afternoon, while Debbie watched. She thought about the stew she had in the slow cooker. About the birthday present for her husband she still had to order from Amazon. She realised that the washing would still be in the washer. She hoped Doug would realise before it went mouldy.
She slid down the machine behind her, her legs slowly giving way, and slumped to one side.
She felt cold.
She could hear a scream, coming from somewhere, it seemed so far away. It wasn’t her. It was someone else.
Oh, Debbie. It sounded like Debbie. She’s a nice girl.
A good soul.