He’s had better days.
His beard suggests he’s in his late forties or early fifties – not a grey hair to be seen (maybe he dyes it). His moustache is absurd and forks skywards around his Captain Hook nose. He’s wearing clothes that would make Liberace flinch, and his expression suggests a bulldog licking vinegar off a nettle. It’s a cold, blustery night, but he’s sat there motionless, glaring out to sea with eyes that have seen way too much, which is somewhat fitting for a gig on Scarborough seafront.
He ends at the waist, and he’s called Zoltar.
If I was a young kid and I fed a coin into the machine that housed him, his eyes would glow and he’d turn me into Tom Hanks. This is why I’m hanging onto my money. (Note for ZoltarMachine.com: if you make one that turns adults into kids, I’d love to experience hair again without taking the Elton John route, so drop me an e-mail.) Zoltar is fierce and proud and largely plastic, and for just £1.00, you can find out what your future holds, as long as it’s covered by his 16 spoken or 2,000 written variations on the theme.
Zoltar’s windows need a bit of a clean.
It looks like Zoltar’s mind is elsewhere. Perhaps he’s thinking back to the kings and queens he entertained with his incredible powers, scrying deep into the what-if, helping the fabulously wealthy to cheat fate (or so they thought, because as Zoltar knows all too well, fate cannot be cheated – even by Zoltar). He remembers his gypsy beginnings, before the public imagination muddled him up with Arabia and he just decided to go with it. He remembers diamond-festooned Caliphs, curved swords, stop-motion creatures of myth and legend. The sands of the desert hiss in his ears; lamps spew genies, carpets lurch into the air. He remembers all these things, even though he knows they never really happened – which isn’t to say they’re not true.
He thinks back to dancing azure waters and pounding hot sun, and he thinks:
Scarborough. Bloody Scarborough.
I’m loving this walk.
There are some people who view amusement arcades, the kind that pulsed on the seafront of every major English coastal town for most of the last century, as a blight whose passing it would be stupid to mourn. They didn’t grow up around them. My home town, 30 miles south of Scarborough, was once aglow with them. I’d sneak out of school at lunchtime and run flat-out for 15 minutes so I could convert my dinner-money into turn after turn on Nemesis before I’d have to leg it back to school, just in time to arrive in class a sweaty mess, at which point I’d remember I meant to spend lunchtime doing that homework that was now due. Repeat, too many times. I had my first proper kiss in an arcade (not just a kiss – you know, a proper kiss). I got beaten up beside a Kung Fu Master machine. I dreamed of a day, somewhere in the future, where you could have graphics as good as Afterburner on some kind of machine in your house. Which would be insane, right? How would you ever get anything done?
Scarborough seafront is my childhood brought back to life. The same sounds fill the air. There are machines that are designed to only take two pence pieces – only them, nothing higher. (There are also machines that reduce your silver coins into a sea of bronze.) The arcades have the same carpets I remember. The change-dispensing booths are the same colour. The slot machines use the same numbers. (“Win £5. Win £10. WIN £20!!!“) A few places sell candy-floss, actual candy-floss, made from…hell, I don’t know what candy-floss is, but this is the real stuff.
It’s a hole in time, and every building we pass throws me deeper into myself.
We’re in search of dinner – fish’n’chips, naturally – and eventually we reach the shop we’re after. Perhaps appropriately for a Saturday evening in Scarborough in October, it’s closed, so we retrace our steps…
…and at one point I look back at the whole glittering, flashing, howling curve of amusement arcades behind us, and I think, I came from there.
And I’m OK with that.