something bad happened

Five years ago I wrote a story about Gameplayer, the second-hand video game shop I worked in as a teenager. Shortly after that the manager retired. I think these events are unrelated.

The manager left the business to my friend Rob, who’d started working there when we were teenagers and never left. Along with all four stores, Rob inherited the company car, a Vauxhall Astra Estate. He spent two hours with a hairdryer peeling the logos off the rear windows so he could see out the back when he dropped the kids off at school.

Gameplayer went legit. Rob paid wages via bank transfer instead of the till and drew up contracts for the employees. The only things I’d ever signed in that shop were thousands of handwritten receipts. They still turn up in my parents’ house from time to time, between the pages of unfinished books or folded in old wallets at the backs of drawers. Fast and Furious 2, £6. Need for Speed Underground, £10. The handwriting makes these discoveries intimate, like love letters. 

Business was slowing down and so Rob had to take measures. Closing the first shop was easy. The lease was soon to end and the staff were happy to transfer to other branches. The second was more complicated. A woman called Judith, who was as hard as nails and had never played a video game in her life, had worked there since long before Rob or I had ever stepped foot behind a counter. I only remember her as an indignant voice on the end of a telephone. She had been about 100 years old even then. She left with a big redundancy payout.

That left only two shops: the one I’d set up with Rob fifteen years ago and another newer one in another part of town. Rob described it as a relatively modern unit. “A few funny things happened in that shop,” he told me. 

“Once I was in the back, and the guy on the counter, his name was Carlos, came in to ask a question. And at the same time I noticed a situation unfolding on the CCTV. A customer had left a stack of games on the counter, hoping to trade them in, and he’d gone out while Carlos priced them up. And a suspicious figure had come over to the counter and was examining them.

“I told Carlos to get back out there. And just as he went, on the monitor, the guy did this weird move where his bag opened and closed fast and then he made a hasty exit. I had to run the tape back to check what I’d seen. He’d nicked someone else’s game — we hadn’t even bought it yet.”

Rob and Carlos caught up with the thief outside a Subway 200 yards down the road. Rob realised he was a regular. “At first he looked like he was about to say hi,” said Rob. “Then he remembered where he knew me from. His first expression was like, All right, mate? And his second was like, shit.”

“You just nicked one of our games,” Rob told him.

“No I didn’t,” said the guy.

His bag was open. Inside shone the radioactive green of the Xbox 360 case. Rob reached in and pulled it out. It was Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2. 

“That doesn’t belong to you,” said Rob.

“Yes it does,” said the thief.

Rob looked at Carlos, who was watching with his hands in the pockets of his large coat. Carlos had once been mugged on the way home from the pub and had taken to carrying a stun gun. Perhaps the thief sensed this somehow because he said: “Please don’t call the police. I’m on license. I’ll be in prison for Christmas. Please.”

Rob thought: if I call the police I’ll have to file a report.

“Obviously you’re banned,” said Rob. “Now fuck off.”

The thief went down a lane and disappeared into the car park. Rob and Carlos went back and added the game back to the pile. The customer came back and Rob gave him £12 for it.

In the end that shop closed too. Then there was only one Gameplayer. The Gameplayer. The shop Rob and I had opened as teenagers fifteen years ago, ferrying stock from the old shop under Frank’s flat, blasting Goldfrapp on the stereo of Rob’s Nissan Micra.

“To be honest, I didn’t see much future in that shop either, but I didn’t know what else to do,” Rob said. “It was the only job I’d ever had. I couldn’t comprehend the idea of doing anything else. I was only thinking in terms of how I could carry on doing what I was doing because this was all I knew how to do.”

At this point, the main man behind that counter was a guy named Jason. I’d been obsessed with games as a teenager, but had been quickly disabused of the romance of trading in dull sports and driving games like Fifa, WWE and Need for Speed. I might as well have been selling potatoes. But Jason was determined not to abandon the dream. “He was coming in and saying: we have to do something,” said Rob. “He was finding new ways to carry on.”

One day, Andy, an ex-employee, dropped in looking to sell a copy of Mega Man: The Wily Wars, a rare Mega Drive game. He boasted to Jason that he’d bought it from a Gameplayer customer for a quid, long ago. Now he was asking £250 for it.

Jason didn’t think much of Andy having ripped off the customer. He thought even less of Andy having circumvented Gameplayer to do it, cheating the business out of a few hundred quid. Now, instead of putting it on eBay, Andy had brought it to Gameplayer. “He was showing off,” said Rob. “It was supposed to be his moment of glory.”

Andy agreed to leave the cart in the shop for a while so Jason could test it. Once he’d gone, Jason called Rob, who sped over to witness the standoff. When Andy returned, Jason told him he was keeping the cartridge. Andy stormed off without Mega Man. A few hours later, he called Rob and said they could keep it. “But he begged me not to spread the story around,” Rob said. “He begged me not to tarnish his good name.”

Rob and Jason put Mega Man on sale for £480, a sum many times higher than any other game in the history of the shop. It sold that afternoon. To Rob, it was a demonstration of the power of retro. “No eBay, no PayPal, no mucking about,” he said. “People would walk in off the street and buy this stuff, for cash. It became the future of the business.”

Rob decided to liquidate Gameplayer so he could reopen it under a new name. This simplified a few things legally and financially, but meant closing the shop for two weeks while the solicitors finalised the lease transfer. 

Rather than announce the liquidation, which seemed a bit embarrassing, Rob and Jason placed a sign in the window that read CLOSED FOR RENOVATION. To sell the effect, in the shop they placed a workbench, a tin of paint, a stepladder, a bucket, an extension cable, and a few pieces of plywood, and hung an Xbox controller cable from the ceiling. When they reopened with the new name, Rob and Jason told the customers that the work had taken place “out back”.

“Everyone was really impressed,” said Rob. “They thought we were really taking the shop to a new level.”

While all this was going on I was living in Tokyo. I was in charge of writing all the instructions for a piece of complicated graphics software used in some of the video games Rob sold in his shop. I lived in a box with my pillow next to my fridge. In the box next door lived a suave British man who once worked in a burger shop round the corner from Gameplayer. He’d bought DVDs occasionally. 

I didn’t fancy Rob’s chances when I heard he’d taken over. It seemed to me that the market for used games and DVDs would only shrink in the coming years, what with Steam and Netflix and declining high street fortunes generally. But when I flew back to visit the UK, with a freckle-faced ramen waitress called Eri, Rob told me that business was booming.

The shop was different. There were cabinets of imported Japanese SNES and Game Boy games, limited-edition Nintendo 64s, refurbished Saturn pads. Where once stood fruit machines was an arcade cabinet retrofitted with Pac-Man and Space Invaders. They held monthly retro game competitions, sold gift vouchers, and had 1,100 likes on Facebook. 

Rob showed me a computer program he’d made that let him scan barcodes, pull product details up from the databases and print labels. It was the stuff of supercomputers compared to our old receipt system. “I’ve done some really clever stuff in it,” he said.

Next to the likes of Super Potato in Akihabara —  with its aproned staff, shelves of sparkling shrinkwrapped consoles, and Street Fighter, Metal Slug and Bomberman cabinets — the shop was unremarkable. But it better resembled an actual shop than it ever had in my day. I was impressed.

Two years later I was back in the UK. In the job centre a woman called Caroline examined my CV and sucked her teeth.

“You don’t use very professional language,” she said. “I mean, you’ve put ‘Hello’ as a section header. That should be ‘Self-Introduction’.”

Six months months ago I’d been presenting to a hiring committee at Google Japan, 700 feet above Roppongi. I’d eaten sushi in the staff canteen. Now I just wanted Caroline to give me £68 a week.

“That’s not a section header exactly,” I told her. “It’s like a — if you look at the layout. It’s sort of industry-specific. I’m sort of trying to — I’m trying to write in a modern, friendly way. That’s how the tech world is going.”

“You wouldn’t want to be over friendly on a cover letter,” said Caroline. “She underlined something. “‘Internet’ needs a capital letter, doesn’t it?”

“Not since about 1998, Grandma,” I said. I didn’t say that. I said, “Oh.”

“Employers do notice mistakes on CVs, you know,” said Caroline.

Gameplayer had gone wrong too.

The shop that had so impressed me two summers earlier was no more. The shelves were balding, and so was the carpet, where a dog had thrown up and Rob had used too much cleaning solution. “It just started making this gagging noise and then it vommed everywhere,” said Rob. “Then Jason started making the same noise and he had to go into the back.”

The floor behind the counter was littered with old receipts, empty packets of Doritos, crumpled tissues, price stickers, soda cans. In the back room were gutted Game Boys, broken controllers, orphaned screws. The path to the staff toilet was blocked with CRT TVs and crippled upside-down office chairs. A duct hung prolapsed from the ceiling.

Rob tapped a couple of keys on the computer and the printer whirred. He examined the receipt. “We’ve taken £71 today,” he said. My wage, fifteen years ago, was £50 a day. And I hadn’t been paying the rent.

Something of Rob had receded. He carried out every operation — every opening of the till, every swiping of a barcode, every answering of the phone — as if under remote control. He seemed not to have noticed the filthy working conditions, and looked confused when I set about gathering up the Doritos packets, like I thought they were valuable.

He told me about the antidepressants the doctor had put him on. For a while they seemed to work, until one morning during the school run the universe closed over him like the end of a Looney Tunes episode. He pulled over and then his eldest was shaking him. “Daddy, you went to sleep,” she said. The doctor took him off the pills.

I told him about my own fainting episode, in Tokyo. One moment I was sitting in an izakaya chowing down on a plate of chicken sashimi, the next Eri was slapping me awake below a barstool. This was around the time the electricity in my flat was being cut off. The paramedics said it was stress, but I think maybe it was the raw chicken.

A woman once fainted in the shop, Rob said. He gave her the Penguin and a bottle of water from his lunchbox. You wouldn’t want to drink out of our tap, he told her.

I spent the summer keeping Rob company. He repaired the broken laser on my Sega Saturn and let me use his Windows XP PC to recalibrate the pitch wheel on my midi keyboard. I repaid the favour in BLTs from the greasy spoon round the corner and jelly babies from the corner shop. The owner recognised me. “You were in Gameplayer with Rob, years ago!” he said. “You look different.” I hoped he was going to say I’d lost weight, but he said: “You have less hair.”

When I put my clothes in the laundry they smelled of Gameplayer. A nicotine dank that clung. The feverish dreams I’d had when I worked there returned like a drain backing up —  the door that wouldn’t bolt, the telephone that kept ringing after I picked it up, the customers spilling over the counter like leaping salmon.

Rob’s relationship with the customers was different from mine simply by virtue of him owning the business. I’d never never been sympathetic to hagglers, for example, because the last thing I wanted to do was encourage a transaction. I was paid the same whether I opened the filing cabinet or not. But these people paid Rob’s salary, and so every interaction carried stakes. He put up with a lot.

A man in a stained T-shirt browsed the cabinets of old import games. “This guy’s a bit weird,” Rob muttered, “but sometimes he buys loads of stuff.” The man lay down on the carpet and began watching YouTube on his phone. He stayed there for half an hour, his quivering belly spilled onto the carpet like the contents of a jackknifed lorry.

There was a man who argued with the Xbox section. “No, I’m sorry,” he said, “I didn’t mean that.” At first I thought he was on a call, but there was nothing in his ear. He picked up a PlayStation game. “Please, he said, I didn’t mean it when I said that.” He examined the blurb. “Please. No. Please!” He put the game back and left.

“This morning I got a twenty-minute lecture on what it means to be English,” said Rob one day. “And before him a bloke who was very concerned that the Earth might somehow tip over and instantly kill half the population. He was doing survival training online. He told me how to catch a rabbit and that if you blow on a horse’s nose it’ll do whatever you want.”

One day Rob said: “Do you mind watching the shop for a minute while I take a dump?”

I told him of course.

And so all of a sudden there I was: behind the counter of Gameplayer, alone.

This counter. The counter. Where all my meagre achievements had begun and now came to rest among the receipts and Dorito packets. The counter where, in the pages of an issue of Edge I bought from the guy next door, I first read about a video game I later spent years writing dialogue for. A game that never came out.

Now the credits of my life were descending over the half-empty plastic shelves. That bastard filing cabinet whose lock I’d fought with until my thumb bled. The ancient Sega cabinet, now half-filled with imported Japanese games whose titles I could, pointlessly, half-read.

People passed outside. A woman with a pram, a man in a cloud of weed. My God, I thought, one of them might come in at any moment and dump a rucksack onto the counter. What would I do then?

I’d have to tell them to hang on. That a member of staff would be with them soon. And then we’d both have to just stand there for minutes waiting for the lav to flush. 

What if they remembered me from some interaction fifteen years ago, when I’d refused to buy their rollerskate, or something?

What if they got angry? Or violent? That felt right, didn’t it, to be turned down by Google Tokyo and catapulted all the way back to this counter and end up shivved by one of these customers. In fact that felt not just right but inevitable — 

“Anyone come in?” said Rob.

I told him no.

“Yeah,” he said. He stared out into the dusty street, suddenly empty. “They usually don’t, these days.”

At the end of summer Rob put the business up for sale. He couldn’t imagine who’d want it, but Jason was holding out for a happy ending. The liquidator told them that stranger things had happened.

A few weeks after that Rob sent me a message. “We spoke to the liquidator this morning,” it said. “He said that there’s no point in us going in any more, as any money we make this month would just end up getting used to pay our debts. So we’ve shut forever.”

Rob unlocked the door from the inside and let me in. He’d hung curtains over the display cabinets so he could hide from people shouting through the letterbox about gift vouchers that didn’t work any more.

It was me and Rob who’d assembled these cabinets, put up the shelves, made executive decisions about where to put the DVDs and the PS2 games. Now we gathered up the tangles of AC adapters and broken controllers and old VHS cases and swept them into bin bags. I’d hoped to put Goldfrapp on, as a sort of ritual, but Rob had already disconnected the speakers.

In the pub we wrote Rob’s first CV. I always thought he would make a good cop — he’s good-humoured, community-minded, slow to anger, and he has the common touch. But he didn’t want another job where people spat on him, so we wrote cover letters for jobs as a postman, an NHS spreadsheet manager and something called a seed bank data resources assistant. At the job centre he signed up for every course going, including classes in interior design, CCTV, construction, forklift driving and bouncer training. It occurred to me that Gameplayer had involved elements of all these. 

He took on odd jobs, including gardening for a neighbour. “It started off as a one-day thing,” he wrote, “but the guy was so impressed by my modest hourly rate and my sob story that he now wants the entire garden doing. I’m digging up the whole lawn and returfing it, building a pergola, installing decking, building a wall. Today I moved a car’s weight in soil. I’m absolutely fucked.”

He declined my offer to help, despite the gardening expertise I’d accrued over several afternoons weeding my parents’ drive. “It’d be a lot more fun if you came along, but the guy has a glass-fronted office in his garden,” he said. “It’s a bit like Frank with his CCTV. I have to remain professional at all times.”

No one took over the lease, so Rob and Jason returned to the shop from time to time to fish out bits of stock and collect the post. “It’s like the Mary Celeste in here,” Rob said on the phone. “I’m sifting through piles of PlayStation cases and there’s Jason’s half-finished Coke from three weeks ago or whatever.”

They found buyers for the Sega cabinet, and the illuminated Sonic the Hedgehog sign that had hung from the ceiling since Gameplayer’s ancient origins as a video rental shop. The rest of the stock they weren’t sure what to do with immediately, so they moved it to a premises a few doors down that had also closed. The owner was a Gameplayer regular who’d gone bankrupt pursuing his dream of running a retro video game cafe.

One morning Jason called Rob to say the Gameplayer alarm was going off. By the time they arrived, it had been smashed up but not quite silenced, reduced to a tinny warble. The glass in the door had been broken, creating a space wide enough to crawl through.

The till hadn’t been tampered with, nor the safe, not that they’d left anything in them. But the chair had been pushed against the filing cabinet, and more mysteriously the lid of the toilet cistern was gone. The man from the corner shop gave them a plastic bag with a hammer in it. He’d found it on the pavement outside.

Rob thinks it was squatters. They’d already taken up residency in the old Poundstretcher on that street. It seems that for a few desperate minutes — perhaps the time it had taken to conclude the alarm could not be shut up — someone had hoped to live in Gameplayer.

We’re some months into the pandemic as I write this. Rob was halfway through the selection process for a coding apprenticeship, but that got put on ice along with the rest of civilisation. So he’s digging gardens and making websites and spending time with the kids, time he never had before. He’s also been getting work on building sites. “At first they were highly suspicious of me,” he said. “But now I’m speaking their language. The good news is the construction work seems to have fixed something in me. I’m feeling a hundred times better.”

Rob realises now that he could have claimed benefits while he was running the shop, kept it ticking over that way. “But,” he says, “I think it would have driven me insane. I think it already had. As shit as unemployment has been, that shop was a fucking nightmare. Wherever I end up can’t be worse than that.”

When Rob cancelled his Real Python subscription, no longer able to afford it, he typed his life story into the questionnaire. He received an email from the owner, Dan Bader. “He’s a bit of a celebrity in the Python world,” said Rob. “I listen to his podcasts and I’ve got two of his books.” Mr Bader wished him the best and gave him a free six-month membership.

I got a job, too, in January. It didn’t start for a few weeks. I decided to visit Eri the ramen waitress before we separated again. We didn’t realise, then, exactly how separated we were about to become.

The coach to Heathrow passed the shop on the journey out of town. I almost forgot to look for it among the boarded-up shopfronts. Rob’s new sign had been taken down and the old Gameplayer logo was back. It was sort of like it had won.

Beneath the TO LET sign the windows were dark and empty. I thought about everything they contained. I put Goldfrapp on Spotify.