In Front of Them All

Early one Tuesday in 2017 I was woken by an emergency announcement on my phone. I live in Japan, a country regularly clobbered by earthquakes, typhoons and tsunamis. I squinted at the kanji, trying to figure out what was coming my way this time, but I could only read two words: “North Korea” and “missile”.

So, I thought. This is how it ends for me.


In fact the missile landed in the Sea of Japan, and so did the one that followed a month later, but the warning shots shook me up. Like many, I have long had a morbid interest in North Korea —  I’d read a few of those memoirs by defectors and escapees — but my relationship with the country had suddenly become personal.

“Japan’s rackets inciting the tension of the Korean peninsula is a suicidal deed that will bring nuclear clouds to the Japanese archipelago,” announced North Korea. “No one knows when the touch-and-go situation will lead to a nuclear war, but if so, the Japanese archipelago will be engulfed in flames in a moment.”

Japan has lots of things the North Koreans might want to nuke. The US has a major military base in Yokota, west of Tokyo, and keeps most its navy in the region in Yokosuka, to the south-west. The US-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University reckons that one nuke over Tokyo would kill 700,000 people immediately and render another 2.5 million considerably knackered.

All this information buoyed around in my head like a naval mine. I scrolled through reams of online speculation about what was going to happen next and who would be the first to die when it did. When the cafe where I was reading began rattling and rumbling, it took me a moment to realise it was a train passing overhead, and not imminent atomic obliteration. So this is what it was like to live in a touch-and-go situation.

I wondered if I ought to pack up my synthesisers and go back to the UK. But my friends in Tokyo were unconcerned. North Korea had been making wild threats for decades, they said, and besides Kim Jong-un wasn’t going to start a war he would immediately lose.

I was less convinced. How many of the angry young men who shoot up schools and shopping malls expect to survive the police response? They just want to hurt the world as much as they can before they die, because they think they’re making some sort of point. Who was to say Kim was any different? Who was to say Trump would talk him down?


I ended up visiting South Korea a year later as part of a visa dodge that is boring to explain. What was famous about Korea? K-pop? Kimchi? StarCraft? I realised, sheepishly, that I knew far more about North Korea than the South. I asked a Korean friend for suggestions. “Well,” he said, “I guess you could go to the DMZ.”

The Demilitarized Zone is the heavily fortified and misleadingly named 160-mile sausage of fence, watchtower, and landmine that divides Korea. There are tours, it turns out. You have to book via insecure credit card payment and submit passport information to be cleared by the UN. It sounded just dangerous enough to be exciting. Perhaps I could be the one to negotiate a peace deal.


On the train from Incheon Airport to Seoul television screens loop a five-minute video about a group of tiny islands between Korea and Japan. The Koreans call them the Dokdo islands, the Japanese call them the Takeshima islands, and both countries insist the islands belong to them. The argument rests on maps and documents dating back centuries.

“HISTORY KNOWS THE TRUTH,” said the television screens, as Japanese maps and documents screwed themselves up and tossed themselves away. “We call on Japan to stand humbly before the truth of history. Dokdo will forever remain a peaceful island of Korea in the East Sea.”

I wondered who this shameless propaganda was supposed to be for. Then I thought of the Last Psychiatrist adage about advertising: “If you’re watching it, it’s for you.” The video was in English, after all.


In the entrance to the Korean War Museum, where I went the day before my trip to the DMZ, a display showcases “Dokdo, Korea’s Beautiful Island”. A model of the islands sits in a perspex box; the English text describes them as “biologically important and military strategic pint” (sic).  There is no mention of Japan. Next to the display is a “Photozone” inviting visitors to pose by a pair of large plastic rocks before the Korean flag. I watched a brown-skinned couple wander into the museum, pose grinning for a photo, and proceed to the main exhibition. It seemed plausible that they had no idea what they had just photographed.

The propaganda proved to be most interesting thing about the museum. The Southern fighters were brave and heroic; the North savage, duplicitous, insect-like. Why? No visitor to the war museum in Seoul is likely to be sitting on the electric fence about which Korea they supported.


I took a taxi to the tour office. I didn’t fancy my chances finding it without Google Maps, which doesn’t work in Korea due to security concerns. Presumably if Kim ever gets directions to Seoul the game is up.

The tour company had given us explicit instructions about dress code. Tourists in ripped jeans or baggy clothes or short skirts end up in North Korean propaganda, proof that outsiders are all poor gangster whores. I had brought a change of clothes in case my shorts were too gauche, but the guide, a cheery young woman in rainbow trousers, waved me onto the bus without objection. The other people on the tour were mainly young white western couples, the sort that looked like they went on hikes together.

The DMZ is an hour’s drive from Seoul, which is convenient for tourists and will be convenient for the North when the invasion begins. We travelled a flat landscape of rice paddies, vegetable patches, greenhouses, concrete buildings. The guide indicated the barbed-wire chainlink fence that separates the highway from the river: it is dotted with unmanned watchtowers, and flows all the way to the North.

The highway ended and we crossed a bridge over the river, steering around a series of barricades, into the DMZ. The air on the bus thinned. There were car parks and huts and barriers and military vehicles and fences with signs that said “LAND MINE”, which, really, is the crux of the argument.

To my surprise, there were nine or ten other tour buses in the car park. As we alighted our guide was accosted by a pair of middle-aged American women who said they had got on the wrong bus and didn’t understand Korean and didn’t know how to go home. They asked to join our tour, waving wallets, but they hadn’t been pre-approved by the UN. The guide directed them to the tourist information centre on the other side of the car park. I hope they made it.


The first stop was what the South Koreans call the Third Tunnel of Aggression. This is the sort of name that things have in Asia. The tunnel is one of several the North dug into southern territory decades prior, planning to use them to send thousands of troops into the South when the time came. Now, in a triumph of capitalism, the mouth of the Third Tunnel of Aggression is the site of a gift shop, where you can buy brooches and bags and T-shirts and North Korean wine. I bought some DMZ chocolate for my girlfriend.

We donned hardhats and descended 10 minutes through an access shaft to the tunnel proper. It was dark and wet and cold and echoed with the sound of people banging their hats on the ceiling. I had to stoop for most of the trek. The North, the guide explained, claimed the tunnels were for mining coal, and had painted the tunnel walls black to support the story. After five minutes we reached a barricade, beyond which was the underneath of North Korea. One by one we peered into the darkness, hoping to spot a secret chemical weapons plant or something, but there was nothing, and so one by one we turned around and trooped back outside.

In an auditorium on the other side of the car park we watched a short video presentation about the history of the DMZ. It was bewildering and explosive, with the production values of World’s Wildest Police Videos, and soundtracked by something similar to the Metal Gear Solid theme. At the end the music changed to something Enya-like and the video reframed the DMZ as a haven for wildlife. Presumably the deer aren’t heavy enough to trigger the landmines. The narrator concluded paradoxically: “Until the day of reunification, the DMZ will be here forever.”


The next stop was the Dora Observatory, an observation deck overlooking the border. The tour guide explained that, usually, both Koreas blast propaganda at each other via enormous loudspeakers, which must have created one hell of a mashup, but things had fallen quiet since the Korean summit a few months earlier.

We disembarked and climbed the steps to the observation deck. Before us lay the mysterious land of North Korea. It was green and flat and not obviously evil in appearance. I dropped 500 won into a pair of binoculars and scanned the landscape, hoping to spot a farmer or guard or an ICBM hidden behind a bush or something, but it was all communist bushes and communist trees and beyond them forbidding communist mountains hiding who knows what.

The only point of interest was a cluster of multi-storey concrete buildings in the near distance. The North Koreans call this the Peace Village, but everyone else calls the Propaganda Village. According to the North, the village is a collective farm run by 200 families, with two schools and a hospital: a model of communist prosperity. In reality, the guide told us, the village literally is a model: no one lives there, and the buildings are empty windowless shells.

In the centre of the Propaganda Village stands a 160-meter flagpole that was until 2010 the tallest in the world. It was erected after the South built a 100-meter flagpole in the 1980s, which the North was not going to take lying down. The North’s enormous flag weighs 270kg and is therefore too heavy to flap much. For most of the time it hangs limp, like a towel. This is the sort of basic engineering error that no one involved in the construction could have failed to anticipate. I can only imagine they would have been swiftly relieved of duty had they pointed it out. They must have been praying for a typhoon.


Next stop was Dorasan Station, the northernmost train station in South Korea. The station was opened in 2003 in an expensive gesture of optimism. The railroad goes all the way to Pyongyang,  but so far it has only been used to shuffle freight and occasionally industrial contractors between the Koreas. The tour guide told us that it might one day carry passengers to Pyongyang and beyond — Ulan Bator, Paris, Edinburgh.

The floor of the station shines; the seats look brand new; an electronic ticker has nothing to report but the time. From the clerk we bought one-way tickets to Pyongyang, then went through the turnstiles out to the platform. There were no trains. We got back on the bus.


Over a canteen lunch of bibimbap and kimchi I struck up conversation with a tourist from Singapore named Natasha. “Don’t you think,” she said, “there’s something kind of spiritual about this place?”

As a matter of fact I did. Everything is so carefully observed and maintained, attended to by quiet, serious people in the service of a division between worlds that is purely imaginary. The men and women who patrol the chainlink fences and swept the train platform and cleared leaves from the gutters of the security huts work in the knowledge that one day, one way or another, some some huge event will settle things once and for all.

There are 250-ish civilians living in the DMZ, all of them farmers, and they have a sort of holy status: you can only live there if you were born there, or marry into it. The soldiers steer them around the landmines to their crops each day.


At the first security check before the JSA, our rainbow-trousered tour guide hopped off the bus, strolled to the barrier, chatted to the officer in the hut, and then just sort of hung around, checking her phone and kicking at a bollard absently, like a teenager waiting for her boyfriend to show up.

Eventually an American soldier emerged. He looked how soldiers are supposed to look. Even his face looked like it pumped iron. He introduced himself as Private Richards, instructed us not to take photos without express permission, and examined our passports. We boarded a second, UN-sanctioned bus and took a stop-start route punctuated with more checkpoints and passport checks. Then we shuffled into another auditorium, where Private Richards briefed us on a history of the area we were about to enter.

The JSA, explained Private Richards, was the only area of the DMZ where soldiers from the North and South stand face to face: hence the South’s curious motto, “In Front of Them All”. At first, soldiers from both sides had been free to wander the 800-meter bubble like rival gangs in a schoolyard. Both sides would annoy each other by spitting and shoving and pulling faces and playing hopscotch on the Bridge of No Return where prisoners were exchanged.

This curious cauldron simmered until 1976, when the South decided to trim a tree that was creating a blind spot between two watchtowers. According to the North, the tree had been planted by Kim Il-Sung, and so they murdered two American officers with axes. The South, led by the US, responded by sending hundreds of troops, a convoy of vehicles, heavy artillery, helicopters, and nuclear-equipped tactical bombers to supervise while a team of military engineers cut down the tree with chainsaws. After that a line was drawn down the middle of the playground. Peace has balanced on it ever since.

Private Richards gave us documents to sign acknowledging that we understood that the visit would “entail entry into a hostile area and possibility of injury or death as a direct result of enemy action”, and that the United Nations Command could not “guarantee the safety of visitors and may not be held accountable in the event of an enemy act”. This was exciting and lent authenticity to the excursion. “In the unlikely event that you see a North Korean,” said Private Richards, “do not attempt to speak to them, gesture at them, or interact with them in any way. They sometimes spit or make cutthroat gestures. Do not respond.” The North photographed people waving and used them to make propaganda suggesting they wanted to be rescued, he said. The document warned that “making expressions like scoffing” could be used as evidence of Americans being dickheads. I would have to keep my naturally smirkative nature in check.

We followed Private Richards in single file into a high-ceilinged building, where he arranged us in two lines on a flight of stairs. He reminded us not to make sudden moves, take photographs without permission, or otherwise muck about, and that under no circumstances were we to defect to North Korea. We followed him upstairs through a large glass-fronted lobby and out into the Joint Security Area.


It is a peculiar place. It feels fake. In a way it is. The surroundings are leafy and pleasant, with neatly trimmed hedges, and reminded me of a university campus. The conference huts, with their primary colours and simple geometry, resemble Monopoly houses. They are bisected by the Military Demarcation Line, a flat strip of concrete that divides Korea. Beyond it is North Korea, but there were no North Koreans. It turns out that soldiers only stand guard when they have visitors. It was like visiting the zoo when the polar bear is sleeping.

There were the South Korean guards to study, at least, and they are captivating. Like the Queen’s Guard, they are absolutely still. They hold “taekwondo power stances”: legs apart, hands clenched into fists held away from their waists, as if pushing invisible wheelbarrows. They wear wraparound sunglasses, completing the resemblance to the T-1000, and are uniformly handsome. They are certainly more impressive than their North Korean equivalents, who are smaller and seem to wear uniforms several sizes too big, like Charlie Chaplin.

My Korean friend told me he knew a guy chosen for the JSA gig. Unfortunately, the taekwondo power stance had given him nerve damage that necessitated leg surgery. Perhaps the North was simply playing a waiting game.

Private Richards indicated bullet holes in the wall a few feet away from us. Less than a year ago a North Korean guard had jumped in a jeep, driven at top speed over the Bridge of No Return, bailed out just short of the Military Demarcation Line, and legged it like few men have ever legged it before into South Korea. He pitched up behind cover riddled with bullet holes. Two South Korean men crawled to reach him and he was rushed to hospital.

After the incident, the South called the North using the special bat phone that links both countries. The South had a policy of calling three times a day, but the North hadn’t picked up since 2013, and so southern soldiers stood at the border and shouted into a megaphone something to the effect of “One of your guys ran over to our side, and he’s pretty shot up, so we took him a hospital, and we’re gonna conduct an investigation.” The North Koreans conferred for a minute, then signalled that they hadn’t quite caught that and could the South repeat it. “That would have been a good day for them to pick up the phone,” said Private Richards.

Before we filed into the middle Monopoly house, Private Richards had us line up in rows as if posing for a school photo. It occurred to me that the North Koreans surely were photographing us, and that I had just been added to their collection. I wished I had worn trousers after all.

The Monopoly house is sparse and functional, furnished only with symmetrically arranged conference tables where negotiations are held. Once, Private Richards told us, the North had brought pots of coffee and generously attended to the Southern officials, refilling their cups the minute they were empty. The Northern officials didn’t touch theirs. As the meeting dragged on the pressure on the Southerners’ bladders built until they were forced to call time. Mandatory bathroom breaks have been enforced since. These are the sorts of minds we are up against.

On the central table lies a pair of microphones, which, Private Richards explained, record everything, all the time. The wires of the microphones also indicate the position of the Military Demarcation Line. “So,” said Private Richards, “those of you on the other side of the table are now in North Korean territory.” That included me. I was in North Korea.

One T-1000 stood astride the Demarcation Line, and another guarded a locked door leading to the North. It was the first time I had seen a door that opened into another country. Private Richards explained that we were free to photograph or pose with the soldiers, but touching them would result in an immediate defection to hospital. “If you do take photos of the room,” he said, “try to angle them to the northern end, away from the south, if you can.” When I asked why this was, he said: “We have some better technology on our side and we kinda don’t want the other guys to see it.”

These armies had built symmetrical bases directly opposite each other, like a Team Fortress level. What could a photo one of us dumb tourists took of the inside of the shared hut possibly reveal? And if it were such a security risk, why were tourists allowed to visit in the first place?

“That’s a good question,” said Private Richards. “I guess it’s just always been allowed.”


We trooped back through the high-ceilinged building down the stairs and out into the car park, where our bus driver was playing a game on his phone. While the others explored another gift shop, Natasha and I took the opportunity to debrief Private Richards.

“Do you ever feel like defecting?” I asked.

“Nah,” he said.

“What if it’s better?” I said.

“No way. I’ve seen those guys. They’re malnourished. I feel sorry for them. They’re pretty good at marching, though.”

Natasha asked: “How many landmines are there in the DMZ?”

“That’s classified.”

“You should say there’s a billion,” I said.

“There’s a trillion,” said Private Richards.

“Why did you join the army?” asked Natasha.

“It’s in my blood. My dad was in the military, so was his dad, all my brothers.”

“What do you think about President Trump’s handling of the situation?” I asked.

“I think progress has come on leaps and bounds in the last year,” said Private Richards.

On the bus, Private Richards had pointed out a memorial to two soldiers from the South who had been ambushed and killed by a pair of northern soldiers. I asked him what, from a strategic perspective, the point of this had been. It was hard to imagine the North Korean generals believed it would win the war. Private Richards shrugged. “Who knows? Why do they do half the crazy crap they do? They’re just…”

“Arseholes?” I said.

“Well, yeah. It’s like how they added an extra storey to their JSA building just so it would be taller than ours. When we expanded ours a few years ago we had to make sure it was slightly shorter so we wouldn’t escalate into a skyscraper battle. It’s dumb.”

“What’s the hardest thing about the job?” I asked.

“Staying hydrated. In summer I sweat like a motherfucker.” Private Richards paused. “I guess the other downside is that it’s high-risk. If North Korea decides today’s the day to pick a fight, we’re toast. We’re the first line of defence.”

We were summoned back to the bus. I told Private Richards to stay hydrated, and God bless America. I hope he survives.


On my final day in Korea I took the bullet train to Busan, the beautiful port city on the opposite end of the country. I had arranged to meet a Korean friend-of-a-friend, who until that point I had only spoken to online: his Japanese ex-girlfriend had asked me to help with his English studies. He asked me to call him H, because, he wrote, “H connotes hentai, sex, hahahaha”. I thought that was fair enough.

On Facebook, H appeared as radiant and flawless as a K-pop idol. In Busan Station he looked a little more ordinary. But when he raised his phone to take a selfie of us together, there on the screen was the shining H I recognised, and beside him a thinner, smoother-skinned, rosier-cheeked version of myself.

“Every Korean has this app,” said H.

H estimated that half of all young Korean women had some sort of cosmetic surgery, mostly to add an extra eyelid fold, a feature all white people have but not all Asians. He preferred women with the fold, he said. Appearances were important. He showed me his designer watch and wallet. At a department store, he helped me pick a new bag; the zip had broken on mine. He took the opportunity to try on a backpack he’d been thinking about himself, but decided it was too girly. I translated the price tag. It came to about three thousand dollars.

As all South Korean men are required to, H had spent years in the army. He had been posted at an airfield and taught about radar. He was glad to be out; it was boring, he said, like high school. As we ate fried chicken downtown, I asked him whether he thought Korean reunification was likely in our lifetimes.

“I hope not,” he said.

This surprised me. I’d assumed, naively, it was something people just generally wanted.

“We will have to look after all of the North Koreans,” said H. “They’re not good people. Even thousands of years ago, the people who lived there were kind of the same. They were violent and always fighting.”

Ah. So it was just in the blood.

“I know it’s kind of a myth,” he said, half-laughing, “but somehow I believe it. I think the North Koreans will always be like that.”

There are people alive today who remember when Korea was a single country. It is impossible that H has no cousins north of the border.

“So do you vote for the rightwing government or the left?” I asked. “They have very different opinions about how to handle the North, right?”

“I usually vote for the right,” he said. “Because, for example, I don’t want to help homeless people.”

“You don’t?”

“If a person is homeless, they made some mistake,” he said. “They could have got a job but they didn’t get a job.”

The North Korean propagandists would make a fine example of H.


“What do you think about those islands Japan and Korea fight over?” I asked H.

“Dokdo?” said H. “I think they are Korea’s.”

When I got back to Tokyo I asked my girlfriend the same question.

“Takeshima?” she said. “I think they are Japan’s.”

Apparently the islands are quickly eroding. Perhaps this will settle the matter.

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Wash Your Mitts

In the summer of 2002 I was 16 and wanted a job. I printed copies of my first CV and handed them into HMV, Game, Virgin— anywhere that sold stuff I was interested in buying, which back then meant video games. When I didn’t hear back, I lowered my standards and filled in application forms for Asda and the Co-Op. They didn’t like me either.

Eventually I landed a job in a grotty pub, washing dishes and filling little white ramekins with ketchup from giant industrial tanks. I calculated that after two months I’d have saved enough to buy a copy of Panzer Dragoon Saga, a rare Sega Saturn game that went for big money on eBay. On my first night in the pub I strapped on an apron and washed up a bucket of pig blood. I quit before I could afford disc one.

After an unprofitable summer I started sixth-form college. My form tutor read out a job ad placed by the manager of Gameplayer, a local chain of second-hand game and DVD shops. I tracked down a kid in the year above whose mate had worked there and drilled him for the scoop.

“It’s a fucking doss,” he said, smoking a roll-up in the subterranean area the students called Cancer Corner, one of sixth form’s many innovations. “We used to borrow change from the register and play the fruit machines all day.”

Fruit machines?


“Your GCSEs are very impressive,” said the manager, scanning my CV. In fact they were grim, but he sounded sincere; maybe he was used to employing teens who hadn’t even finished school.

He was interviewing me in the basement of the main Gameplayer branch, which was dark and damp and felt like a police interrogation room from a noir movie. He wanted someone to cover Sundays in the smallest of the three branches. It was lonely work, he explained, and the shift was long, with no breaks beyond lulls between customers. I expressed my enthusiasm, though I had no experience of shop work, or in fact any work at all beyond washing up buckets of pig blood and squeezing ketchup into little ramekins from giant industrial tanks.


The manager called the next day to say he’d decided not to hire me. I was young and green, he said, and the job could get a bit touch-and-go sometimes. I wasn’t sure what that meant.

A few weeks later he rang again. He’d caught the other kid nicking from the till. I started the following week.


My Gameplayer was on the edge of town between a petrol station and a Kwik Fit. The shopfront was a dusty graveyard of eclectic wares — a power drill, a digital camera, an iPod dock. A short flight of concrete steps led to the narrow door; I pushed it open and an electric buzzer yelped like a trodden-on dog.

It was the size of a corner shop. It smelled of dust and mould and something like dried milk. The carpet was frayed and stained. The walls were plated with plastic red shelves holding battered game boxes with handwritten price stickers. In one corner a TV displayed security footage beneath a burnt-in timestamp. At either end of the shop stood the fruit machines the kid in Cancer Corner had mentioned, giant and ominous, like the monolith from 2001.

It wasn’t much like Game or HMV.

The manager invited me behind the counter. It was a strange feeling, like holding a steering wheel for the first time. There were shelves overflowing with homeless wires and third-party peripherals, stacks of games and DVDs waiting to be filed, an ancient cash register, a giant calculator, a small TV for testing consoles, handwritten notes taped to everything.

There was also a hammer.

“I’ve never had cause to use it,” said the manager, “but you might see fit to wave it about a bit from time to time.”

In the concrete patio behind the shop towered piles of broken televisions and VCRs, twisted and rusted after years exposed to the elements, and concrete steps leading to the basement, which was always locked. Pinned to the door of the staff toilet was a sheet of printed paper that said:

WASH YOU’RE MITTS

THEY’ER COVERED IN SHITS


I got to know the manager. He was divorced, read the Daily Mail, played jazz drums, and had zero interest in video games. Over the course of the day he demonstrated my responsibilities: opening the shop and turning off the alarm; buying, filing and selling stock; answering the phone; writing receipts; stocking shelves; hoovering the carpet and wiping the counter; cashing up; setting the alarm and locking up. It seemed like a lot.

At the end of the day he gave me £30, enough for half a disc of Panzer Dragoon Saga, and that was the end of my training.


Gameplayer was less a shop and more a car boot sale that had got out of hand.

We organised games by platform— Xbox, PlayStation, GameCube and so on— but that was as far as it went. When customers asked if we had a particular item in stock, there was no way of knowing unless you happened to have seen it around recently. When they asked us to contact them if the thing came in, I patiently took their number, then binned it. I had many of these polite deceptions; the ancient cash register had long since lost the ability to add anything up, for example, but it still beeped when you tapped its keys, so I tapped them to buy time while covertly doing sums on the calculator.

We had to use the calculator because there was no computer. We derived our prices from an enormous tome that dropped through the letterbox each month. When a customer wanted to sell a game, or we had to price it for sale, we looked it up in the price guide, like looking up a name in a telephone book. Because there was no receipt printer, we filled receipts out by hand, writing the date, listing the items bought or sold, and signing each one in triplicate. I signed so many of these receipts that my signature quickly congealed into the graceless scrawl that still adorns my credit cards today.

Every transaction was recorded by hand on a sheet of lined paper, then added or subtracted from the amount left in the till the previous day. The number you ended up with was supposed to be the amount in the till. Maths was my weakest school subject, and at the end of each day at Gameplayer I was invariably off by £10, or £50, or £100; sometimes over, sometimes under, but never bang on. In most retail jobs this would have been a matter of concern, but I suppose Gameplayer’s books were so thoroughly cooked already that the manager never seemed to care much.

When we bought a game or DVD from a customer— the shop dealt entirely in pre-owned stock— we removed the disc and manual from its case, put it into a numbered envelope, and used a price gun to affix the envelope number to the box. The envelope went into a filing cabinet, and the box was priced by hand and went on the shelf. When a customer took the case to the counter, we looked up the number on the box and retrieved the disc from the envelope in the cabinet. It was a system prone to error. For every 20 items customers tried to buy, one produced the wrong disc entirely: Teletubbies became Grand Theft Auto, Medal of Honor became a yoga DVD, and everything else became The Fast and the Furious.

Eventually the manager made us include our initials on each filing sticker so we could trace who’d misfiled an item. I ended up with the highest score. Once I had to close the shop because I couldn’t unlock the filing cabinet and therefore couldn’t get to any of the stock; I grasped at the key until my fingers were sore, but the damn thing wouldn’t turn. The manager arrived in his van and turned the key in one effortless twist. “You’re one of life’s artists, James,” he told me.

There was no lunch break, so when I got hungry I locked up, taped a handwritten “back in 5 mins” sign on the door, bought a tuna sandwich from the petrol station and ate at the counter between serving customers.

The shop’s laissez-faire attitude had its advantages. Unlike my friends who worked in high street chains, we had no corporate brand to adhere to, very little management, and few rules. I could choose the music I played on the stereo, for example, and wear my own clothes; and I wasn’t on commission, so I didn’t have to upsell or annoy people. But it meant there was nothing to protect us from the customers, either.


I grew up in a detached house with Radio 4, a piano, poetry, pesto and an Aga. At school, kids picked on me for being posh, by which they meant I was still common enough to say “choon” but not enough to say “innit”.

Years after working in Gameplayer I lived in Tokyo. It sounds absurd, but the culture shock there was nothing compared to being 16 years old and dealing with really poor people for the first time.

The big problem was that we bought things, and therefore were a means of income. The manager taught us to pick through the wares with a sceptical eye; we were to buy no discs with scratches or dings, nothing without a case, nothing we already had multiple copies of. But many of the customers owed someone money, or were on drugs or whatever, and were relying on us to save their kneecaps. During my first day a man tried to sell me a broken rollerskate and a pair of used AA batteries. When I told him we didn’t buy these things he wept.

Sometimes when we refused to buy stuff – because it was in bad condition, or obviously stolen, or belonged in a different shop entirely – these desperate people turned ugly.

“What time do you close?” asked one man, after I said I wasn’t interested in buying his Roy Chubby Brown VHS tapes.

“Six,” I told him.

“I’ll be waiting for you then,” he said. “Outside.”

There was never anyone waiting for me at six. The threat alone did the work.


The other problem was the fruit machines. They obsessed people. Everyone had a method, a trick, a secret technique they knew guaranteed the jackpot. They would try to convince me of this when they begged for money from the till, promised to split the takings, were outraged and scandalised when I refused. Whenever the shop was broken into, it was the fruit machines the thieves went for, not the more lucrative (and easily looted) cash register or filing cabinet. The fruit machines were the only things in the world.

One bored afternoon I took a ten-pence coin from the till and dropped it into one of the machines, curious to understand what it was that so fascinated people. It lit up and made noises. I pressed a button. Something flashed. I pressed another button. Another sound played and the lights turned off. I had no idea what had happened. It was the last time I ever played a fruit machine.

I once watched a woman drop coins into one of the machines for an hour. She had with her a young girl who pulled her hand and said mummy, mummy, can we go now, we’ve been here ages. Sometimes the woman said yeah yeah, we’ll go in a minute, but mostly she didn’t reply at all. When I could watch no more of this I went into the back room and put my hand on the switch that fed power to the machines. When the woman reached into her bag for another fistful of coins I cut the power. Her money rattled in the coin return.

“Sorry,” I said. “Out of order.”

She blinked as if the lights had come on in the cinema, took her little girl’s hand and left.


“Oh, but the worst ones were the middle classes,” my friend Tom told me ten years later. Tom and I have been friends since school; I got him a job in another Gameplayer branch shortly after I started. “If you didn’t want to buy a scratched DVD off a working-class guy, he’d just call you a dickhead and leave,” he said. “But the middle-class ones would pick a fight and hang around for hours, saying ‘I know my rights. Let me speak to your manager.’”

I recalled a woman who came into the shop with her teenage son to buy a pre-owned Xbox. He picked out a few games and she interrogated me at length about each one. Was it violent? Did it have sex, or swearing? The kid disappointedly returned Gears of War and Call of Duty to the shelves. Finally they agreed on some bloodless entertainment, bought the console and left.

A couple of hours later the woman strode back into the shop. Outside in the street the kid waited in the back seat of a car. He looked stricken.

“I thought I was clear that I didn’t want my son exposed to inappropriate material,” said the woman. She slapped a paper slipcase onto the counter. “I’d like to speak to your manager at once, please.”

I examined the slipcase. It contained a demo disc packaged with the Xbox console. One of the games previewed was Conker’s Bad Fur Day, a game about a foul-mouthed cartoon squirrel who battles giant turds. I wondered if the woman had actually met any thirteen-year-old boys.


Gameplayer changed my brain. It drew a line down the centre of the universe: the space behind the counter, and everything else.

The electronic beeper on the front door had a Pavlovian effect. When it triggered, signalling the arrival of a customer, I tensed like an animal about to receive an electric shock in a science experiment. After a day at work, as I drifted to sleep, I dreamt feverishly of customers coming into my bedroom and trying to sell me PS2 games.

One day, after I’d closed the shop, I couldn’t find my wallet. Finally I checked the CCTV. There, on the screen, a man hitched himself onto the counter, fished around, grabbed my wallet and sauntered off while I stacked shelves like an idiot.

The theft itself wasn’t as bad as the psychic violation. The man had breached an impassable boundary. The counter was all that stood between me and anarchy. He had proven that the counter wasn’t real.


On my first day alone in the shop a gaunt old man in an anorak and baseball cap entered carrying a Chinese takeaway and some sort of animal skull.

“All right?” I said. In another shop I might have said “Can I help you?”, but this was Gameplayer and “All right” was the preferred greeting.

The man’s crooked yellow teeth chewed a roll-up. “Don’t get fucking fresh with me, sunshine.” He turned a key beneath the Xbox shelving, opened a hidden door and disappeared upstairs.

That’s how I met Frank.


“The thing about Frank,” said the manager, “is that he’s a bit sad. But he’s all right. Just don’t get on his bad side. He holds grudges for a long time.”

Frank lived in the flat above the shop and kept an eye on the CCTV. I imagined him chain-smoking and eating his Chinese takeaways beneath a giant bank of television screens. It was an effective Panopticon: there was no way of knowing when Frank was watching and when he wasn’t, so you had to assume he was watching all the time.

“James,” Frank would say, over the phone, “you’re not being paid to sit on your fat arse. Do some of that filing.”

“I’m eating my lunch at the moment, Frank,” I’d tell him.

“You could do with a bit less lunch, mate.” Click.

He was no help as a security guard. The shop was regularly menaced by a gang of juvenile delinquents led by a boy named Jake. He looked how bullies are supposed to look: squat and plump, with tiny black eyes like the bluebottles that littered the shop window. He and his gang stole stuff, threw stuff, called me names, told me to get a haircut. I tried ignoring them, reasoning with them, shouting at them, bargaining, threatening; nothing worked. They knew I was powerless. It was all part of the fun.

I called the police often, but never had much to say beyond “there are some obnoxious kids in here, can you come and arrest them?” which sounded pretty weak when it came to the crunch. There were a lot of visits from community support officers who never seemed to do anything but hand out security stickers, and anyway arrived hours or days after the menacing had concluded. Eventually the police gave us a little notebook to write incidents down in. I don’t know what happened to the notebook, but I doubt it ever got read out in a courtroom.

Once Jake threw a bottle of Fanta across the shop in the presence of a security guard who’d popped in from Poundland to browse the DVDs. The security guard sat on him until the police turned up. When they reviewed the CCTV, they said the footage moved too fast to show the bottle legibly and that it might not stand up in court. There was also some debate to be had, they said, about whether the security guard’s decision to sit on Jake had been an appropriate response.

My time with Jake was the only time in my life I have ever fantasised about having a gun. It wasn’t that I actually wanted to shoot the kid; I just wanted the bargaining chip. “As you can see, Jake,” I would explain, holding the gun, “I have here a gun that can shoot and kill you. You have to listen to me now, and do what I say, or else I will shoot you with this gun.” I would point the gun at him in demonstration. Jake and his gang would leave the shop and never return, afraid of being shot and killed by a bullet from my gun.

Once, after I’d ejected Jake and his friends and slammed the door before he could jam a pudgy leg back into the shop, Frank stormed downstairs.

“Next time you throw one of your fucking wobblers,” he said, “don’t slam the fucking door. My mirror fell off the mantelpiece and smashed!”

After he’d stomped back upstairs, a woman looked at me aghast and said: “Is that your boss?”

“No,” I said. “He just lives here.”


One afternoon, not long after I’d started, the manager called to explain something about money. Through a complex series of events, he said, there had been more cash left in the till than normal, but he didn’t know how much. Frank was away, so it was therefore up to me to remove the excess cash, however much it was, put it in an envelope and slide it under his secret door.

I opened the till and counted the money. It came to about £600.

The fruit machine lights danced.

I put £100 in the envelope. Then I took another £300 and put it in my wallet.

I deserved that money. The job was hard. Jake kept throwing Flamin’ Hot Monster Munch at me. With £300 I could buy all four discs of Panzer Dragoon Saga in one swoop.

Now, of course, I recall why the manager had hired me in the first place: he’d busted the previous kid for stealing. This was a trap. That didn’t occur to me at the time, so when I put the money back in the till it was for the right reason.


One quiet afternoon a Swedish man arrived and said he’d come to see Frank. He was well-mannered and smelled clean; I couldn’t imagine him and Frank being friends. Nonetheless Frank came down to greet him and they embraced. I’d never seen him in such a good mood. Or any good mood.

Over the course of the day more men and women arrived from far-flung places: Spain, Switzerland, Norway, Turkey, France. Frank embraced them each in turn. Late in the afternoon they descended from his flat carrying an ornate staff, a Virgin Mary, the animal skull I’d seen earlier, some sort of orb and a Tesco bag full of robes. They trooped sombrely behind the counter out of the back door, past the stacks of broken TV sets and down the cement steps to the basement.

The shop was dead that afternoon. Dust motes hung in the air like someone had nailed them there.

I put on a video of Die Hard 2.

The Swedish guy came upstairs and asked me to turn the volume down. “We require silence,” he said, “for the procedure.”

I turned the TV off. He thanked me graciously and went back downstairs.

I chewed a pen lid and read the women-seeking-women personals in the Friday Ad.

When I heard it I taped the back-in-5-mins sign to the door, locked up, went into the back room and pressed my ear to the carpet.

It wasn’t my imagination: Frank and his followers were chanting.


After I’d worked at Gameplayer for about a year, the manager decided to relocate the branch nearer the town centre. This meant that Frank had to move, too. When the day came his followers went up and down the stairs carrying boxes of stuff; I saw the Virgin Mary go past in a crate. I asked if they needed a hand; the Swede told me it was kind of me to offer but that they were just fine. Once they’d loaded everything into the van Frank came into the shop with a classical guitar.

“Know anyone who can play this?” he said.

I said I could, a bit.

“I bought it in a flea market in Barcelona,” said Frank. “Years and years ago, that was. I was a young man. There was a girl. Nice little thing. The guitar, I mean. Stays in tune quite well. There’s no room for it in the van, so it’s going on the skip if you don’t want it.”

I picked it up and strummed a chord; it smelled of old smoke and Chinese takeaways, but sounded OK.

“Thanks, Frank,” I said.

He dropped his keys on the counter and left.

I scrubbed the guitar with one of the old toothbrushes we kept for cleaning consoles and gave it a polish with the Mr Sheen we used on the counter. I took it with me when I went backpacking through Europe the next summer; it’s leaning on the wall next to me as I write this. It stays in tune pretty well.

A year after he gave it to me I heard Frank had died.


After the van drove off I looked up at the CCTV camera, no longer connected to anything, and conspicuously adjusted my underwear. I put on The Dark Side of the Moon and cranked the amp until the shelves rattled. Then I called Rob, who worked Saturdays, and told him I had Frank’s keys. He sped over in his Nissan Micra.

Frank’s flat was bigger than I’d imagined. The wallpaper was yellowed with cigarette smoke; the carpet crunched underfoot in the way carpet isn’t supposed to. There was a sealed-up fireplace, and a toothbrush somewhere, a chipped mug. It reeked.

Strangest of all was looking back down from the top of the stairs to the shop below, with its awful shelves of Need for Speed and Medal of Honor. It was impossible to reconcile the two worlds, like peering into a really crap Narnia.

“Let’s look in the basement,” said Rob.


Rob flicked a switch. A bald lightbulb buzzed and sparked and illuminated a graveyard of apparatus: an old Sega display cabinet, mountain bikes, another sealed-up fireplace, filled with cigarette butts. There was an antique, throne-like chair, an old electric heater and a staircase that led to nothing but low ceiling. Cobwebbed machinery stood beneath an old sign that said something about tools and pulleys. This had been some sort of workshop, a long time ago.

Still visible beneath the thin patches of paint Frank had applied to the walls were crude runic symbols. On the floor, beneath the soot, was something like a pentagram. I think there might have been a stain, too, but Rob says he doesn’t remember that.


The new Gameplayer was on a busy shopping street nearer the town centre. It would be a stretch to call it classy, but there was a definite sense that we were going up in the world. The manager paid me and Rob to cart stock back and forth in the Micra, and we spent a few days setting up the shop, listening to Goldfrapp and making executive decisions about how to position the shelves. Customers banged on the door, keen to sell us broken microwaves or stolen golf clubs; we sent them on their way. It was, by Gameplayer standards, a happy time.

The new location brought with it a new cast of characters. There was a grotesquely obese man with a smell so powerful it peeled the price stickers from their boxes. He always had a bicycle with him; I wondered why he was so fat when he cycled everywhere, or how he even got on the bike at all, until Tom pointed out that he merely used it as a crutch. According to Rob, who was studying computer science, the man once asked him how to erase a hard drive. I mean really scrub it.

There was a Turkish man desperate to buy pornography, and wasn’t ashamed to say so. Gameplayer occasionally stocked softcore DVDs with titles like Sex Truck and British Boob Brigade, but the guy didn’t have a DVD player, so I picked out erotic thrillers on VHS for him.

One guy used to buy about a hundred DVDs at a time, rip them to a hard drive, then sell them back to us the next day, boasting of his cunning. This created huge amounts of filing, so we hated him. Another man used to open a suitcase revealing dozens of copies of the same game or movie, still in their shrinkwrap. The suitcase was lined with foil, which, he explained proudly, fooled the mall security sensors. I refused to buy obviously stolen goods, though this was less on moral or legal grounds and more because it gave me an excuse to avoid filing.

One snotty, spotty kid, maybe 15 years old, used to ask for odd jobs. He wasn’t looking for money; I think he just wanted to be our mate. He was so persistent that one day I got him to alphabetise the DVD section, which got him off my back for an afternoon. After that he got creepy. He wanted to come behind the counter, hang out, choose CDs to play on the hifi. He followed me when I went to buy lunch and stalked me round the Co-Op; I pointed him out to the security guard and never heard from the kid again. Maybe he’s still there, stacking tins of tomato soup.

Once a guy showed up five minutes before closing, carrying a pizza from Pizza Hut. He picked out a DVD and got stuck behind a customer in the queue. He became so impatient he tossed the pizza on the floor and stormed out. That same day, Jake and his mates had pelted the counter with eggs. I wrote in my teenage diary: “Soon I will have all the ingredients for a pizza Florentine.”

There was a man in an electric wheelchair who used to hang around for an hour or two at a time. He’d summon me to hand him a DVD from the higher shelves, consider it for several minutes, then call me back to hand him another one. Though I think he had full use of his arms and hands, he seemed to have difficulty controlling his wheelchair, and would drive into shelving units or display cabinets. “Hard times, hard times,” he’d mutter to himself, attempting the doorway. “You get through ‘em. You get through ‘em.”

There was also a young man named Freedom, the nephew of a celebrity who lived locally. He had anger problems, so we had to ban Freedom.


One damp winter morning I opened the shop and the carpet squelched underfoot. It had rained hard that night and we’d sprung a leak. Rainwater spilled down the shelves; the ceiling tiles bulged and blistered. A couple of them had burst and water was cascading into the shop. I didn’t dare turn the power on— water was running over the trip switch— so the whole shop was in swampy darkness. While I made panicky phone calls, customers waded in and browsed undeterred. At the time I interpreted this as stupidity, but in retrospect perhaps it was a sort of kindness; loyalty, even.


On a nearby sidestreet was a smaller second-hand game shop called Games Hoarder. Its owner, Barry, dropped in sometimes to rock on his heels and ask casual questions like “So how much do you lads make on a decent Saturday, then?” He gave me a greasy, uneasy feeling, and it seemed safest not to answer.

Come summer, I spent my savings on an Interail ticket and went backpacking around Europe. Around Prague Rob emailed me to say the local paper had printed an article of interest.

GAME ON FOR LOCAL ENTREPRENEUR

Everyone dreams of making a career from their hobby.

But video gamer Barry Stoke knew opening a shop meant working hard, not sitting around playing Xbox all day.

Barry saw an opening in the market while he was working for the high street franchise Game.

He said: “I soon cottoned onto the fact that there is lots of demand for used games.

“That was when I came up with my idea for a shop.”

That was a year and a half ago and Barry’s gambit has paid off.

His shop, Game Hoarder, is now the only used games shop in the city and is thriving.

It was the last bit that annoyed me. I wrote a letter to the same paper.

Your article of May 20 stated that Game Hoarder is “the only used games shop in the city”.

Gameplayer, not two minutes’ walk from Game Hoarder, is one of a chain of shops based in the city dealing in second-hand games. It has been around almost a decade.

Blockbuster opposite also buys and sells games, as do Game, Gametrader and Gamestation in the town centre.

The Game Hoarder premises were previously occupied by another used game shop, Games Zone.

Mr Stoke deserves credit for his success, but he’s far from the only gun in town.

James Duffy

I didn’t mean the letter to attack Barry. Not exactly. He hadn’t written the article, and the inaccuracies could have just as easily have come from sloppy journalism. Instead I wrote out of a strange loyalty to the horrible shop that had employed me for two years — it was a mess, but it was my mess — and an unfailing urge to correct the trivial mistakes of others, a habit I cultivate as it makes me attractive to women.

Weeks passed. I thought I’d got away with it. Then Barry came into the shop. Someone had tipped him off.

“Was it you who wrote that letter full of shit about me?” he said. He was wearing sunglasses; something felt deliberate about it.

“Well, yeah,” I said. “It had my name on it.”

“You tosser,” he said. “I always thought we had a friendly rivalry.”

He had with him a thin woman who he introduced as his lawyer. “You’ll be hearing from her soon,” he said.

I said: “But the article was full of bollocks.”

“There are children in here!” said the lawyer. “It’s illegal to swear in the presence of children.”

“You’re both fucking banned,” I said.


Shortly after the newspaper printed another letter.

GAME, SET AND MATCH FOR GAMES HOARDER

A few weeks ago, I was featured in an article about my used game business, Games Hoarder.

This article prompted a letter criticising me and my business.

In fact, the writer of this letter was “A James Duffy”, who is actually 18-year-old James Duffy, who works weekends for Gameplayer, which just so happens to be my closest competitor.

Game Hoarder’s reputation is spotless. It is recommended by High Street shops, but only those which do not need to resort to filthy tricks and which remain professional in this competitive industry.

To them, I say thank you.

Barry Stoke

We pinned it up in the back room below the list of banned customers.

A year later Games Hoarder went out of business. Barry offered to sell to the manager, but he wasn’t interested.


One evening near the end of my time at Gameplayer, about a minute before closing time, a man ran into the shop with a bulging rucksack and set it on the counter. This was a sign that someone was about to create a lot of work.

“Got a PS2 for sale,” he said.

I can’t remember why I declined. Maybe we already had a stack of unsold PS2s. Maybe I had too many things to do before I went home that day. Maybe there wasn’t enough cash left in the till. Maybe I’d just had a bad day and I didn’t like the guy’s attitude.

“Mate,” he said. “It works, I swear to you.”

I told him that I’m sure it did work, but that I couldn’t buy it that day, and to come back tomorrow.

“Why won’t you just fuckin’ buy it?”

Come back tomorrow, I said.

“I don’t understand,” he said. “It says on the front of the shop that you buy consoles.”

I told him we did, but not right now, and to come back tomorrow.

“You’re making a big mistake,” he said.

After he’d left I followed him to the front door, spun the OPEN sign to CLOSED and began the fiddly process of locking the two glass doors. On the street, the man got in a car— its engine was running— and had an animated argument with the woman behind the steering wheel. Then he jumped out of the car and ran up to the doors.

“I’ll fucking cut you, you fucking cunt,” he said. Something metallic flashed in his hand; perhaps it was just his car key; perhaps it wasn’t. “I’ll fucking cut you. You’re fucking dead mate.”

He slammed on the door. It rattled and shuddered. Fucking hell, I thought, fiddling frantically with the lock, this is exactly like that bit in Jurassic Park with the raptors in the kitchen. I leant back with all my weight, which admittedly is a bit more weight than is really healthy but possibly saved my life in the short term. I slid the lock home, ran back to the counter, more or less dove over it and dialled 999. The man banged and kicked on the doors, shouted I’ll see you tomorrow, got in the car and sped off. I never saw him again.


After having worked at Gameplayer for three years, I left my hometown to go to university. Tom quit a couple of years after me and moved to London. Rob still works in the shop, and in fact took over the chain when the manager retired; he now manages all three Gameplayer branches, and has a wife and three little girls.

Years after I left, I was in town on my way to the station and needed to take a leak. I was passing Gameplayer, so I popped in to take advantage of the facilities.

There was a new guy behind the counter. As I approached I saw him tense up in the way I used to, not knowing if I was friend or foe.

“Hi,” I said. “I’m James.” I vainly imagined he might have heard of me, that I had become some legend in the years since, but the name didn’t seem to light him up, so I went on: “I used to work here, a few years ago.”

“Oh,” he said. “OK.”

“How’s it been today?” I asked. “Any trouble?”

He shrugged. “Quiet, I guess.”

I cut to the chase. “Well,” I said, “if it’s OK with you I’m just gonna pop in the back and use the toilet.” I lifted the counter door.

He stood up. “Uh… I don’t think I can let you do that.”

I wasn’t expecting this. “Seriously?”

“We don’t let customers go behind the counter.”

Actually I had let customers use the staff toilet from time to time, particularly if they were parents with little kids. But I conceded defeat and left. I had become one of the cattle.


After I started writing this I visited my hometown again to retrace my steps.

The area around the first branch I worked in had changed. It wasn’t exactly upmarket, but there was a hip-looking burger joint, and the petrol station where I once bought tuna sandwiches was now owned by Marks and Spencer and sold hummus and wraps.

It took me a moment to recognise Gameplayer. It had become an Asian food store. The basement, once the site of Frank’s mysterious rituals, had a framed Betty Boop poster in the window; from the street it looked like a nice flat. Inside the shop the stained red carpet was now classy black tiling, and the shelves were full of instant noodles and soy sauce.

It was a nice shop. Someone had spent money on it.

I bought some banana Pocky and ate it as I walked to the other branch. It hadn’t changed much on the outside, but inside were small improvements. The counter had been refurbished and extended, making the place look even more fortified. The shelves were organised by genre and title; I later learnt the old shelving had finally split and collapsed on a customer. There was a modest selection of retro games in a display cabinet, complete with a limited-edition Pikachu Nintendo 64 running on a little TV set. There had been a few old cartridges knocking about in my day, but back then you couldn’t give them away; retro hadn’t been invented yet.

There were no fruit machines.

The guy behind the counter was named Mike. He’d started shortly after I left ten years ago; possibly he’d been my replacement, we didn’t know.

“I’ve heard about you,” said Mike. “Rob was telling me about Frank just yesterday, and his weird cult. Is it true there were runes on the walls?”

I asked him how the business was going.

“Actually,” he said, “it’s been a bit tough for the last year or two. Things are slowing down.” The manager had opened a new branch a couple of years prior, he explained. It had failed. It was in a more upmarket town; “posh and middle class,” in Mike’s words. I’d been to the town once with my mother, years earlier. She bought an accessory for the Aga.

“Everyone round there buys their stuff new off Amazon, so they don’t need Gameplayer,” said Mike. “Whereas a lot of the customers here don’t really know what the internet is. Likewise, sometimes the customers in the new shop would want to sell stuff, but we’d offer them £3 or whatever and they’d go ‘oh, well, I won’t bother then’. But the guys who in come in here, you know, £3 pays their electricity bill for another day.”

A woman came in and asked if we had a copy of Frozen for her granddaughter. Mike suggested she try the Sainsbury’s around the corner. He had an easy repartee with customers, chatting, making jokes. I wondered if I’d been that good at it.

“I feel sorry for a lot of them,” he said. “I think lots of people who come in here are just lonely. They want someone to talk to. I don’t mind. I’ve never got used to the smell, though. Some of these guys, Jesus, you wonder if they’ve had their water supply cut off.”

“Do you get much aggro these days?” I asked.

“Someone punched me once. I didn’t report it. He was ill. I still see the guy wandering around, muttering to himself.” He told me about another guy who, following an altercation, smashed the shop window. The reinforced glass shattered his hand and Mike called an ambulance.

Clearly the customers weren’t all, bad, though. “I met three of my girlfriends here,” Mike said. “They just came in and started talking to me. They liked games and so did I, so we just hit it off.”

This was unthinkable. Mike was sleeping with the enemy.

He gave me a couple of games to retrieve from the filing cabinets while he dealt with some more customers. The cabinets hadn’t changed, though the stickers showing what numbers each shelf held had worn away. One of the games was misfiled. I added the box to the pile in the back room.

When we had another quiet moment I asked him about the retro cabinet.

“Retro stuff is big business these days. We put most of it on eBay,” he said. “You’d be surprised at what turns up.  A while ago I went to see someone’s massive collection, someone who’d died and whose mum was trying to get rid of it all, and there were some real gems in there.”

“Like what?” I asked.

He listed a few cult classics, the likes of which I had never seen cross the shop counter: The Secret of Mana, Majora’s Mask, Paper Mario, Klonoa. “Oh,” he said, “and Panzer Dragoon Saga.”


There were more changes, small lurches towards professionalism. There were branded bags, a membership scheme, and — incredibly — staff uniforms, though apparently no one really bothered with those. Mike indicated a Gameplayer-branded hoodie made of cheap cotton hanging in the back room. “I go jogging in mine,” he said.

The biggest change was invisible: an internet connection. On the staff PC I minimised Spotify, logged into Facebook, browsed to the oldest photo in my gallery and set it as the desktop background for Rob to find.

Photo by Thomas Grimshaw
Photo by Thomas Grimshaw