PENNY-UP by Daniel Fraser

On Tuesday afternoons I would go down to the garages with Sam and Jason to throw coins at a wall. Derek would come and bring a twelve-pack or a slab and we'd stay there past dark. Penny-up can't be explained, you just have to play it. Like life. The summers were the best. Big sun falling behind the tower block, kids running under the washing lines, screaming and fighting on the open grass, the chimneys and smoke-blackened brick stretching back into the hills, and us with nothing to do but roll.  

“Watch me,” said Derek. We watched him land a soft rebound. It was warm, muggy. The sky was swirls of grey and milk, somewhere far off crept little bits of blue.

“Not bad, not bad,” said Jason. I told Derek he might make the championships. 

We called it rolling but really it's a flick. You throw just like a decision but here it's not heads or tails, win or lose—it's all how well you handle the distance.

I cracked open a beer, listening to air escape. That sound like sea being sucked beneath a stone. Foam curled out above the mouth. I drank. 

“Did you see that horror film?” said Derek, “the one with all the cameras.”

“I did,” I said, “I like anything where people are being watched.”

“Is there a film where everyone is Michael Caine?” said Jason, “I want to see that.” He wiped his hands on his overalls.

“Guy Ritchie doesn't make those anymore,” said Sam. Sam sliced his flick wide—“fuck it.”

We grew up in a place no one ever never really leaves. None of us broke the mold either, slowly aging into versions of our fathers. Toned down and diluted into something we could bear. Jason and his dad landscaped gardens for rival firms operated by two half-brothers. Derek was a lifeguard with a wrestling ring in his back garden made from broken gym equipment. His Dad looked like Bill Oddie but was some kind of karate grandmaster. Me and Sam worked removals, furniture mostly. Both of our dads went missing, so we knew about taking stuff away. We moved furniture from one place to another, room to room or town to town. With work distance didn't matter, only care. We were good. Sam could drive a van and I could judge the width of an object just by looking. 

The light was paler now. Some kids were shouting, calling out a cheat. Jason made two in a row and took the pot. 

“Who is this man?” said Jason, looking round, grinning, pointing at himself. An imaginary crowd roared. Derek kicked at rough edges of the tarmac. I cracked open another beer, feeling happy and small, like an insect, embedded safely in some forgotten fabric, left to chew its little square of dust. That's the good feeling, the penny-up feeling, like one small glory is just enough. Some people don't get it. I brought Amy down once. She stayed twelve minutes and told me to meet her in the pub. Amy had a hole in her throat from birth and we'd been in love for nearly as long—same street, same school. She ignored the game and shuffled inside her coat. The valley was colder then. Her hair caught up with brown leaves blowing from a sycamore outside the cinema.

“It's just throwing time away,” she said, sipping bitter. I made a joke about time being money. She looked at her hand and kissed my arm and told me on Tuesdays not to call her before nine.

Derek looked at a pigeon and said the word “sandwich.” He pulled a sandwich from inside his coat. After three bites he got distracted and dropped the sandwich. I imagined the bread growing legs and crawling up the tower into the sky. I'd already sold the script for Spider Sandwich and started shooting by the time someone said, “you're up.” I flicked a scrape right down the wall; it ended millimeters from the edge. A winner.

“Sick,” said Sam. We bumped cans in celebration. Just then I was king of penny-up, grandmaster, lord of the garages. Sam got a hip flask of whiskey from the van and we swigged it, shoulder to shoulder, the liquid warm and burning in a way that didn't need to last. 

Sam's been living with me for four years. Our brick house is an end terrace rented from someone else's aunt. Three rooms under a low slate roof: separate bedrooms, and a downstairs that's just one big space. In the garden, old paving stones frame a swimming pool of lawn. “We can grow things here,” Sam said early on, but neither of us ever really did. Most nights, Amy would come round and I'd cook dinner. The first few times Sam told me she was frosty until we discovered Helicopter Police. Amy liked anything with cops that fly. Once we found a channel with repeats and watched it for six hours straight. The police would fly around and shout and look down on people doing criminal things.

“Night vision,” Amy said when everything turned green.

“Oh fuck,” said Sam, “run!” They ran. The cops read out confusing radio signals and codes. It didn't seem to make much difference, they just flew hard into the night. Sometimes the camera was black and white, sometimes it was red.

“Heat sensors,” said Amy, “they're done for.” She dipped a chip in mayonnaise and shuffled forward in her seat. Everyone cheered when the criminals got away.

It was close to sunset. Clouds were glowing low behind the empty mills and scattered clumps of wood. 

“I want to meet someone,” said Derek, “a girlfriend.”

“You need to be more romantic,” said Sam, he flipped a coin and caught it, then wrote poetry on the air. He picked imaginary roses and gave the wrapped bouquet to Jason.

“I'm romantic,” said Derek. Derek opened a can, a puff of lager fizz hissed into his face. He wiped his sleeve across his mouth. Derek kicked off the next round, betting high and almost making it. Sam took it in the end, on the last roll. Derek smiled and shivered and leaned against a garage door, the metal bending inward, before popping out without a dent. Even after, when he was injecting, Derek still made Tuesday though his hands were mostly too shaky to win by then.

Dark was scrolling through the hills. Derek looked at his watch, his neck woozy and soft. He put his hand in his pocket and brought out a new roll of coins. 

“No more for me,” I said, “I'm quitting while I'm ahead.” Derek looked away toward the wall. Sam drank up and burped and crushed the empty can into his hand.

“Ready to go?” he said.

“Yeah,” I told him. We hugged Jason and Derek in turn.

“Got a full house in the morning,” said Sam, turning. I nodded and followed on behind. We got to the van door, and I heard Derek shouting, “Practice round, practice round!” We drove home, stopping to pick up frozen bags of fish fingers and nuggets, leaving Jason and Derek in the thickened moonlight, Jason shouting over the garages, “Come on then, just us two now.”

I called Amy. She picked up and told me about her day. “Nuggets,” I said.

Police Helicopters,” she said. Behind me, Sam said, “You know it,” and started making siren sounds. A wind ruffled through the van, we hung our mouths out of the window like dogs. I smoked while Sam drove. The van climbed above the factories and the old estate. Summer fog came and covered up the stars. The rest of the week stretched out ahead of us. It didn't matter. Just then nothing was big and frightening: the world was just a web of tiny movements, round lumps shifting, bumping into things, moving closer or further away.

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MURMURATION by Daniel Fraser

Chip Disco hated chips, and disco. He only ever danced alone. Chip worked the skeletons in the Blackpool Ghost House and had done for three years. Four rooms in, the skeletons crept out from a false cupboard that looked like it wasn't part of the house at all. Everyone said it was the best bit.  

The timing was everything; the timing was Chip's special skill. Just when the customers thought they were safe, after fleeing from the slime pit and the array of plastic bats, Chip would catch them unawares. A camera hidden in a pumpkin took a picture of their faces distorted with fear. There were three photo points in the Ghost House but Chip's sold the best. He always knew the perfect time. 

The Ghost House was part of Adventureland, a complex of amusements and arcades knocked-up in the shadow of the tower for those who couldn't afford the Pleasure Beach. The owners were too cheap to buy a sensor, but Chip's boss Graham still threatened every now and then to replace him with a little red light.

'More reliable too,' Graham would tell him, and then laugh like any of this was new.

They weren't allowed to call them customers, in the park they were always referred to as adventurers, 'to make it seem more real,' Graham said, 'a fully immersive experience'. Chip and Sally, who dressed as a clown and came down the last corridor with a kitchen knife, smirked at one another.

'An immersive experience,' said Sally afterwards, with a face that said sarcasm but also said help.

'Like sticking your head in a toilet is an immersive experience,' said Chip, grinning.

Chip and Sally were friends. They watched DVDs in bed together and sometimes had sex.  Sally liked to watch a whole series in one night and Chip slept badly so they got on just fine. They had another friend named Benny who worked as a dolphin in Splash Town, the place for the under fives. Benny worked part time and employed two boys, both inexplicably called Jason, to sell drugs in nightclubs on Friday and Saturday nights. Benny never paid entry in to anywhere and said he did the dolphin thing 'just for fun'.

It was a bad week in the Ghost House; the season should not be ending so soon. Graham was dragging everyone to team talks and going on about the ‘Adventureland family’. One evening when they were in bed Chip caressed Sally's head and kissed her dark neck softly and sweetly. She asked if they were 'becoming more real,' and Chip said 'maybe'. They put the TV on low and held one another in the fuzzy light.

The next day Chip and Sally met for lunch at the Blue Dragon Chinese buffet. Benny joined them with the dolphin folded up inside a big sports bag.

'How are you?' Sally asked.

'Kweeeh,' said Benny. He had to stay in character all day in Splash Town so he didn't spoil the magic for the children. Sometimes he kept it going for a laugh. The first time Chip called him 'Marlon-fucking-Brando' and Benny did a version of the dolphin noise mixed with the Godfather and they laughed so hard that Sally nearly choked on a fried tiger prawn.

'It's bad today,' said Chip, 'I feel down or something.'

'I know,' said Sally, 'I feel it too.' She was staring at a piece of sesame toast like it was a playing card.

'This place,' said Chip.

'Yeah,' said Sally with a vague kind of long-term sadness.

'An immersive experience,' said Chip.

'Kweeeh,' said Benny. They laughed and went to get a second plate of spring rolls.

Benny asked if they wanted to meet up on Friday and go to the big hotel. There were bands playing and Benny could put them on the guest list. They both said they would see later on. Benny nodded and clicked his tongue. They paid £5.95 each and Sally held Chip's hand. Benny went to the bathroom with his bag and came out dressed as the dolphin. The waitress in the buffet shrieked with laughter and the owner pretended to chop Benny into pieces with a meat cleaver. Then they went back to work. 

It was early afternoon. The day was cloudy. A mother and son had just gone in. Chip sat in the dark booth waiting for them to enter the skeleton room. He waited. The woman and the boy did not come through. Chip checked the camera in the slime pit but found no one. He used the intercom to ask the vampire (an acne-ridden teenager called Joseph with a deformed hand following an accident with a deep-fat fryer) if he had seen anyone pass through. Joseph said he hadn't.

Chip wondered where they could be. He snuck out of the booth and up into the place where the mechanism moved the skeletons. From there he pushed through and out into the Ghost House. Chip looked at the pumpkin camera, trying to think if there was a way to take a picture of himself. He went backwards through the slime pit, feeling the strange texture of spider webs and furry bats brushing through his hair. At the entrance Chip saw Sir Spooks-a-Lot manning the ticket booth. Spooks-a-Lot nodded, his plume swayed. Chip nodded then turned back inside the house. He carried on through his own room, climbed back into the skeleton cupboard and left through the staff entrance. Chip walked round to the exit tunnel and waited. No one came. He went to the shop and asked Jenny if anyone had collected any photographs. Jenny said ‘no’ and blew a bubble of yellow gum that inflated and swallowed up her eyes.

Chip went outside and stared at the pin-board covered with photos; a selection of staff favourites mixed with the most recent visitors. He saw the wall of faces, terrified for their lives. Lone adults, limbs distended, shaken white. Little boys and little girls, clinging to their parents for dear life. They seemed twisted with pain, wretched before the skeletal creatures that stood slightly out of frame. Chip looked at the ground. A thick lump of feeling grew inside him, a dark pain or a kind of sickness. He walked away from the Ghost House and through the turnstile exit of Adventureland.

Chip wandered down along the waterfront, following the coast south. A heavy wind was blowing across the grey expanse of sea. A few gulls swept up into the cloud. It felt big, he thought, bigger than anything he could imagine. Some vague stuff about life and death drifted through him and he felt as though the wind might tear up all the land and the ocean and carry it away into the sky. He imagined the Ghost House and the whole of Adventureland breaking up over the Atlantic, the debris swirling like a great murmuration of birds. 

A lone donkey trotted in the damp dunes, unattached to any purpose, its rope bridle dragging in the air. Chip bought candyfloss from a yellow cabin and waved the chewy pink stick in front of him like a lance. Further down he came to a windmill rising from a traffic island. It had been painted white and black. The blades were completely still, like someone had broken it on purpose, to make it just for show. It looked like a sad giant, he thought, frozen and bleached by the cold. He passed by a statue of a footballer, standing with one foot on a copper ball. Chip walked on. He thought maybe he could just keep walking until all the land ran out. The Ghost House, the adventurers, the dolphins, and the flat screaming faces pressed down like a weight against his chest. 

Chip looked up again. It was cloudy—the same cloud as before. The same sky. He wondered if he would feel better if it was blue. Rain started and then stopped. The wind carried on. The big feeling came back, whirling through him like a storm. He felt sad and thought for a moment he might cry. There was a little spark in him—he knew that. Something worthwhile. Everyone had one. On bad days he wanted the spark to go out. Work was easier then.  

One autumn Sally convinced him to go to night classes at the college. He took one on photography and one on literature. When he told the photography students about the pumpkin they all laughed at him but the teacher said Chip had a fantastic sense of time. He liked reading too, especially the old classics, big tales of demons and adventure, but afterwards they all got confused and he couldn't separate them. Even so, there was something inside him then, a spark, another big feeling—different. A kind of moving forward.

Chip realised he had reached another town. He saw it had the same mud, the same grey sea, the same run-down arcades, but all the names had changed. Chip thought about the woman and the boy who had vanished, about whether they might be trapped in the Ghost House, the horror turned real, desperate and unable to get out, or if it would turn out they were just in his head, part of his imagination—a vision of lost innocence, his failed youth—or some other cheap trick. Chip laughed out loud, the heavy feeling was pulling free. He felt loose and light. Sally called and asked if she could stay over. He said he'd like that, and he would buy her dinner. As Chip went to say goodbye the last thing she said was lost to the wind. He ended the call and felt a little warmth rustle in his body.

Chip entered an amusement park called Virgil's with a pirate-alien in a red spacesuit moulded in plastic on the outside. He put a pound in a slot machine and got three back. He played the Evil Claws game and won a level-two prize. Chip took the ticket to the counter. The owner wore an eye-patch but no other pirate clothes. The wind was flicking hot sand into his mouth. He made a halfhearted pirate sound and handed Chip a cuddly leopard. Chip decided he was 'on a roll' and played the ice hockey machine. He won 3-1 against the Devils. Chip went further inside the amusement arcade, grinning at the bright lights and strange games. In the very back was an empty dancehall. Chip ducked through the red curtain and went inside. Down there you could not tell day from night. There was the warmth again, a little spark. As the music pulsed up through his body, Chip began to dance alone.

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