Oh… to be Beside the Seaside

By Alan Emmins

The glass has been shattered at knee-height. A puncture point surrounded by cracks; sharp tracks of light that run up the glass like the legs of a compacted spider. On the other side of the glass coloured lights flash and spin. Gunfire and demonic voices cry out from speakers, but aside from the outdated slot machines the room is empty and devoid of life, excluding a girl who sits in her pimped-out change booth, but even she looks like the work of a mean-spirited taxidermist. She sits, framed by yellow and orange light bulbs, motionless, attempting non-expression as best she can. To talk to her you have to stoop down and speak through a small partition in the Perspex security screen. It’s there for protection, lest somebody reach in and grab one of the many stacks of two-penny pieces.

It was in this sad little room some twenty years ago, on a drizzly afternoon much like this one, that I was cured of any would be gambling addiction. My mother had given me £20 to buy a new pair of trainers I’d been whining after. I was growing up bit-by-bit and was now allowed to go alone into the local high street—my first test of trust. Lo and behold, my size was sold out. There I stood—a twelve-year-old with a £20 note burning a hole in his pocket. I simply had to make a purchase.

I started out with a sausage, deep-fried in batter and arranged across an open bag of heavily vinegared chips. But all that salt made me thirsty so I bought a can of Tango. Tipex came next—typewriter-correction fluid was a must, fueled as I was by my childish and unhealthy obsession with all things stationary. I was on a spree, and untainted notepads always held such hope for me, so I just had to buy one.

I now only had £14.50 for the £20 training shoes I had arranged with the shopkeeper to collect the next day.

It wasn’t a problem, I thought cockily. The seafront was just a mile away. The main strip of which was a hundred-metre-wide haven of gaming arcades. Inside these arcades were machines with flashing lights and buttons. Machines that I knew dispensed money willingly. It was possible, if you handled these machines right, to drop in ten pence and remove five pounds. Job done!

Fifteen minutes later I was sweating profusely. A trembling mess, I stood in front of a slot machine with just £1 left of my £20 shoe money.

That’s when they approached. Two boys, slightly older than me, who ultimately rid me of my gambling instincts.

“Lost all ya money?” they enquired. But on learning I had £1 left they said, “gis it ‘ere then and we’ll win ya money back for you!”

Though instinct told me the two boys would likely lose my last pound themselves, or run off with it, I was also aware that it wouldn’t make an ounce of difference to me either way. I had lost every penny I had dropped into the machine and there was nothing to suggest that it would be different with my last £1. Going home and giving my mother a lone £1 coin could have been construed a bigger insult than going home empty-handed. I had nothing to lose. Watching the two kids run away with my last pound seemed like better value for money.

I handed them my coin.

Instantly the machine lit up. Wheels span, lights flashed and very soon the machine omitted a sound much like an electronic passing of wind; rising in tempo and tone until a little digital screen announced a win of £1.20. A few more spins and flashes followed. Buttons were keenly slapped and a winnings total of £6 flashed in green digits.

The boys hit the “collect” button and while the machine’s music sounded jolly, it spat the coins out mechanically. It was saying choke on them! Eagerly the two boys scooped up the coins.

“How much did you lose?” they asked.

They laughed boisterously at my number and more so at my story. They turned and walked over to another machine.

I accepted that I wouldn’t get any money back from them, or maybe at best my original pound. But it didn’t matter: this had now become a tutorial. If I paid attention I’d see what it was they were doing different. All I’d need is a pound.

The truth is I couldn’t differentiate between our two techniques. They dropped coins into the slots and slapped at the buttons much as I did. Yet at their touch the machines kept choking beneath the jolly music. Thirty-five minutes and ten machines later they stood counting a great stash of coins. They had £26.30.

To my utter astonishment they counted out £20 and told me to put the money in my pocket and go straight home.

Having learnt my lesson I did exactly that. I went home and told my mother a lie as the coins bounced around on the kitchen counter, to which she replied, “What do you mean the man in the shop wanted to get rid of some change?”

So, as an adult, I do not gamble money in any way. Nor do I comprehend the joys of it. What, then, am I doing back here? In that very arcade, surrounded by the same hideous sounds and sights—in fact the same sorry machines—of twenty years ago?

It has something to do with being thirty-two, fond memories and long winding lanes. But this trip doesn’t put a smile on my face. It simply depresses me.

As a youth this room was buzzing with activity. Even mid-morning on a school day there would be half a dozen kids bunking off school along with a smattering of unemployed teenagers. Just over the seawall (the building of which cost my childhood best friend his father and led to the family moving away and to me crying for a week over my loss) there would be a few fleshy hides ruining their complexions. I remember teenage girls with babies and picnics. Shouted promises, “I’ll give you something to cry about in a minute!” I remember candy floss, dropped toffee apples and sticks-of-rock. Now there’s only a doughnut stand and that’s padlocked shut.

Did my childhood drop off the map?

Telling people that I come from Essex often elicits a smirk. Going on to tell them I grew up on Canvey Island generally incites a snigger. Now and again derisory laughter floats away on a breeze. Although here I catch myself in a lie. I stopped telling people I grew up on Canvey Island ten years ago. I come from Bromley in Kent now, where I lived in a rented flat for an entire year.

Those of us that grew up on Canvey Island and left, in my case soon after my gambling spree, are only too aware of the dishonour this geographical location indelibly grafts upon us. Those that instead chose to remain on the island, the place to which they will remain loyal for the rest of their lives, are less aware of the stigma.

Saddened to see the seafront of my childhood hanging in there like a punctured lung, I head to a nearby café for refreshment. I am served a cup of undrinkable coffee. It tastes like seawater from beyond said wall, where my auntie Shirley—swimming as a child—caught polio. In fact I don’t think the coffee is made from it. I think that’s all it is: cough-ee.

The café is a row of plastic tables with bright orange chairs, all attached to each other with crudely welded metal. Sitting at the table to my left are the two waitresses in jeans with blue serving-bibs pulled over their sweatshirts. They stare out the window into the wet world. At the table opposite sit two women and a man in his early forties. He leans on his elbows and looks over his barrel chest where the remains of egg and chips have been pushed and bullied on a scratched white plate. He wears closely cropped hair and a selection of tattoos from a 70’s niche: eagles, bulldogs and a Union Jack. He wears faded jeans and a white T-shirt. He smokes Lambert & Butler cigarettes.

The man looks over to the waitresses and asks, “You got any work ’ere?”

“For you?” one the waitress asks back.

I expect him to say that his son (“me boy”) is looking for a Saturday job.

“Yeah,” the man says, “I can cook, but I don’t mind serving or even doing the dishes, I can do anything.”

Canvey Island, if the truth be known, is sinking. Or at least that’s the rumour. Even as a child we were told that the island was sinking an inch every year. Now, what with all the “two up two down” housing developments that have surfaced like acne all over the island, the sink rate must have increased. But for an island predominantly already below sea level this seems to cause insufficient alarm. A repeat of the 1953 flood that engulfed the island and claimed 58 lives is not on the minds of the populous.

I walk back along the sea wall—man’s defence against nature’s will—and head into another arcade. This one has two patrons. Their old frames sit hunched on high-backed stools, flood survivors, joined by history and a penchant for slot machines. The man and woman, known to each other only as faces who play the slots, sit some ten-feet apart. Both stare through thick glasses as the wheels on the slot machines spin and flash 7’s, X’s and treasure-chests. They both hold plastic cups, half-full or half-empty but weighted down all the same with silver coins. Like museum pieces they document the working class of England-of-old.

It seems Canvey Island is immune to culture snobbery. As most of England strives to drop its working class roots and propel itself into a middle class Jamie-Oliver-cook-booking society, Canvey Island sits cloaked in a kind of middle class repellent. “Oy Oliver! Get that purple aubergine away from my egg and chips!” In fact Jamie Oliver’s book sales must be low on the island, from my days here I can’t recall there ever being a bookshop.

I am glad I came back to this sinking monument. A frozen history of working class England through economics, fashion and food. Even language stands the test of time on the island. As you sit in cafés, eavesdropping on the local scene, you soon learn that most sentences are pre-empted with little teasers, clarifiers, like: “A little word in ya shell like.” (The shell being your ear) “To tell you the truth.”

One braggart even went as far as to tell his table companion, “I won’t lie to you” and although this is bending the truth, I’d like to omit a couple of coughs here, before he adds, “I earn a lot of money.” To which I wish I’d had the balls to reply, “Oy prickarss! There’s a sign above your head that reads ‘2 crumpets and a cup of tea £1.50.’”

I feel lucky to have escaped. Having lived my time on the island in a council flat on Church Parade I am more grateful than ever to my stepfather; a non-smoking, teetotalling man who never seemed to miss a day’s work. Who for ten years didn’t seem to spend a penny, until there were enough savings to buy a house, off the island, in neighbouring middle-class Benfleet. But then he wasn’t from the island, so he came with the built-in sense to get us off there, ASAP. In fact every time my stepfather started the car we headed straight for the nearest bridge.

I am a thirty-two year old male, with requisite tattoo and no formal education. It could just as easily have been me in the café, saying, “I won’t lie to you, I’ll do anything!” Instead I sit outside a café, in Copenhagen, where I live, proofreading my copy while sipping a £5 pint.