In what felt like no time at all, Vikram’s Arcade Bar had become my local haunt. Soon enough I was spending more time there than I did at my own apartment, which all things considered was fine, having no-one to go home to, nor any impetus to do the basic things functional adults were expected to do, like pay bills, shower, cook or socialise. To be honest, it was probably far too complimentary to call Vikram’s either a bar or an arcade— the place should have been condemned long ago. It was a relic— a dingy, two levelled black hole located down the back alley of a McDonald’s, neighbouring a parade of touristy sex shops, smack bang in the centre of town— a black hole that had remained unchanged since the winter of ‘87 when, if all stories were to be believed, it was torched to settle an unpaid bookie debt during it’s previous incarnation as a nightclub. Vikram’s was one constant within a city that never seemed to be able to make up its mind. The bumped linoleum hallway, trailing from the street level was always sticky regardless of the day or time one visited; the smell of cheap perfume and fresh piss perpetually high in the air like a stubborn miasma, warning all visitors of their fate beyond the faded red door. In the time that I’d been going there, I’d never once seen any members of staff ID the fresh-faced patrons that would sometimes line the bar; teenage boys on a bar crawl or in the midst of a rowdy stag-do, passing by in the early hours of Sunday, each nursing plastic cups of foamy Latvian beer while cheering rabidly at football highlights that beamed down from the ancient television propped above. In any case, Vikram’s game selection was one of the best in town (if you could believe it), plus they were open 24 hours (except on a Sunday, unless you knew Vikram by name) and they waived all known smoking laws, so stepping over the odd discarded syringe in the flooded bathroom floor or witnessing an ageing skinhead receiving a covert handjob from a stilettoed teenager, were small prices to pay for the sense of escape that it provided me from the nightmare that the city at large had now become.
I’d usually make my way straight there after work, queuing amongst suited, restless rush hour crowds, taking a packed blue line train straight into town and killing time by the river until it was late enough for the sleazy overweight corporate men with their secret, slender girlfriends, or spotty foreign kids with oversized cameras to be gone. Sure, there’d still be the odd working girl hanging about, tapping away on dainty mobile phones with neon pink talons or the occasional wino glugging away at some miscellaneous bottle that they’d managed to sneak in, but even so, they kept themselves to themselves. I preferred the quiet— well it was never quiet exactly, taking into account the constant crashing of empties being flung into crates, painfully nostalgic music that blared from ageing speaker and the high-pitched, animated Japanese lolitas that would perform mesmerizing routines over futuristic happy hardcore on blinding arcade screens, but for me any evening devoid of yelled conversations, artificial drunken cackling or an end-of-night argument cum knife-fight, was quiet enough for me.
My game of choice was nearly always Sega Rally Championship. Perhaps it was some subconscious way of compensating for the fact that even as a thirty four year old male in one of the biggest cities in the world, I couldn’t actually drive a car; perhaps it was me just me attempting to live out a childhood longing for computer games that I wasn’t allowed to play, but either which way Sega Rally Championship became all that I knew and cared about when I wasn’t working or sleeping, my eyes still lighting up like they did all those years ago when passing the mysterious cut-out-cars at the shopping mall as I was hurried on by my mother, walking bags of shopping home. I nearly always had my pick from the dozen identical machines and number 6 was my usual— a calculated choice based on its freshly replaced imitation leather chair and a newly added cup holder, as well as containing all of my previous records saved under hilarious names like CUM, DIC, TIT and if I was feeling particularly inventive FUK. After a few months, the blown light bulbs, swarms of flies and the outdated music didn’t bother me so much. Occasionally, if I felt like I was falling asleep, I’d mix it up— playing a few games of pool on my own as a livener, before ordering another drink and a pack of smuggled Saudi Marlboro’s, that always made me cough, much to the delight of the late shift bartender, Frankie, but more often than not, I was dead to the world; a world that was more often than not, dead to me.
That evening, Frankie was the first thing I saw, shouldering the heavy door and freeing it from its stubborn, splintered frame.
‘One of these days you’re gonna break that door, mate’, he said in his usual routine.
I waved a middle finger, prompting a laugh and a search for an empty glass.
‘Hey pal. You’ll never guess who was just in here, mate’, he said, shuffling the barstools, their split red leather cushions like popped pimples, revealing exposed sponge.
‘Hello to you too, Frankie. Same as usual, if you please’.
‘What— aren’t you even gonna guess?’, Frankie asked, disappointment in his voice, clutching a knackered looking dishcloth. ‘You won’t believe this, mate’.
‘Will it speed up my drink?’. I handled a crumpled yellow flyer with a printed notice laid next to the beer taps.
‘I bet you can’t guess’. I thought to myself, unfolding the flyer, repinning it on the cork board on the wall.
‘Well, it’s a Thursday and it’s not early. So I’m gonna guess— Marnie?’.
‘Marnie! Marnie, Marnie. That bloody idiot. Back again. What does she think? We ain’t got anything better to do than take her business? We’re a bar for fuck’s sake! An arcade bar at that!’.
‘Yeah, you got it in one!’.
‘An arcade bar?’, I interjected, watching him attempt to slice a browning lime with a blunt knife, juicing the small ball each time without a slice.
‘Yes, an arcade bar. Just like all of those swanky fancy places in your neck of the woods’.
‘Minus the homeless people sleeping on pool tables, shootings, crackheads and deluded, psychic brothel madams’. He handed me a glass tumbler, topped with the debris of ice, small crystals, a quartered, squashed lime sat on the summit.