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CYC-Online Issue 6 JULY 1999 / BACK
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SHORT STORY

In situ

Alan Roberts

David's looking up at me again. I see him out the corner of my eye. I know what's going to happen next. He's going to ask if he can play another game. So I prefer to avoid his gaze. I peer at the screen in front of us – at the final image of the game he has just played. I'm hinting with my posture what isn't going to happen next. After all, we've been here a while. It's getting late. Gopal's Cafe closes soon.

"Aw, come on", David whines, “One more. I swear it. Just one more. Then we'll go. Honest to God."

David's looking at me but I'm paying attention to the frozen image glowing on the screen. It portrays a bronzed muscleman, of huge proportions, doubled over, a knife-handle protruding from his naked chest, dead. It's a violent image. Disconcerting. An ignoble end.

"What's his name?" I ask, pointing.

"Robocop", says David.

"I tell you what", I propose, shifting posture. “I'll give you another twenty cents. But this time, you have to earn it. You have to work for this game. How does that sound to you?"

David narrows his blue eyes. “What do I have to do?" he asks.

"Tell me about the game," I say, “What you have to do to win. What the aim of the game is. Whatever you want to tell me about it."

"Oh that's easy".

David snatches the twenty from my fingers and inserts it in the indicated slot. The protagonist is moving. David has laid his hands on twin joysticks and is jerking them frenziedly backwards and forwards. Other kids suddenly materialise from elsewhere in the cafe and gather around us. A motley bunch. No girls. Robocop kicks out with his legs. He punches, chops and cuts with his arms. He gyrates in every direction. He's defending against attackers.

"Why is Robocop being attacked?" I address David.

Behind us, someone sniggers.

It's true. The hero's progress along the street is being threatened at every turn. Club-wielding thugs assault him. A ton of bricks falls from a second floor. Further on, masked knifeman emerge from an alleyway. Now a horde of ferocious Alsation dogs approach.

"Enemies", snorts David. (He's not working very hard for his money. I want him to tell the story, to describe the drama, not to abandon the world of words. But it looks as though a flickering image has a firmer hold. I'll try again.)

"Enemies?" I say to David, in search of motive and hungry for plot. “Why are they attacking Robocop? What's going on?"

"They're trying ... “ David begins. His hands are flurrying at the controls. His eyes fix on his hero who is now embattled with a new set of adversaries. He huffs. “They're trying to stop him from getting to the White House where the president of the United States of America is being held hostage and he's trying to free the President and save America and he's only got two lives ..."

I have an impression that David has forgotten about the twenty and is talking unwillingly to me. He'd rather be left to his hero's vicissitudes. He'd prefer not to be questioned at such a crucial time. Look at him: face up against the screen, hands a blur at the controls, totally absorbed.

So, as Robocop stoops to gather some food at a street corner – sustenance for his next task – I glance around the interior of Gopal's Cafe. Shelves of candies sweets, chocolates. Comics and trash literature cramming a revolving stand near the entrance. A poor selection of fruit and vegetables. The old counter. Mr. Gopal. And suddenly I'm in Gopal's Cafe in 1973. The refrigerator is in the far corner. Opposite it, I'm pushing and cajoling a pinball machine, fingers frenetic at the flippers, trying to keep the silver ball alive, smoke from my Lucky smarting my eyes. I bring up another ball. Someone saunters up. Leslie. Wearing a cheesecutter. He offers me a sip of Coke. I drink, hand back the bottle, and pull back the plunger.

Ever since I was a young boy
I played the silver ball
From Soho down to Brighton
I must've played them all
Now I ain't seen nothing like it
In any amusement hall
That deaf dumb end blind kid
Sure plays a mean pinball.

It comes back to me. In situ. I stare at the empty space opposite the refrigerator, biographing on, and experiencing a certain anguish. The irreversibility of lived time. The need to fill the empty space. To remember. In situ. Here.

1973. The Who. Tommy. Pinball. Leslie.

"That's your last life." I snap out of my reverie. Who said that? I look at the faces. Bright faces. They're turned toward David. I'm standing amongst the Video Generation. David's looking up at me again. I avoid his eyes and glance at the screen. A knife protrudes from Robocop's chest. I know what's happened. Robocop's dead. I know what's going to happen next. But I'm wrong! Mr. Gopal's making an announcement. He's the same man I knew in 1973. Mr. Gopal's closing the shop now. Aw, come on, Mr. Gopal!

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