Austin Bowsher: ‘Coin Girl’
My name is Austin Bowsher and I am an undergraduate English student studying at the University of Exeter Penryn Campus in my third year. I have been a writer for several years now. Some inspirations for my piece were the works of Haruki Murakami, Banana Yoshimoto, and Osamu Dazai. My piece, set in Nagoya, Japan, is about an office worker facing the decision she made to abandon the passion she had for arcade games in her adolescence, which re-emerges when a childhood friend comes to visit, questioning just how adjusted and comfortable she is with her current life.
The distant sun sat on the horizon, halfway inserted into the ground, its golden hue visible despite being swallowed from below. From the window of the nineteenth-floor office, which had relocated to floor twenty as of the day before, the sun was slim and small, as if able to be pinched between a thumb and forefinger.
“Okay, thank you everyone for coming to today’s meeting. Remember to file the rest of your work before closing unless you want to stay late.”
An office worker rose from her seat as it slid along the thinly carpeted floor, bowing to the manager. A buzz vibrated from her shoulder bag, and she shuffled out a pristine phone, the screen printed with notifications.
[Bank Balance Update: ¥345,000 added to account under Monthly Wage category]
[Text from Niijima – 30 minutes ago. Read?]
[Text from Niijima – 3 seconds ago. Read?]
The pop-up was shunted to the side, and the text window appeared.
[Niijima (16:29): Im in the area. Wanna meet up Nagoya GameCen?]
[Niijima (17:00): realised u still at work. Planning to be there 5:30. U know where Ill be waiting]
The arcade, the game center, isn’t a building when you’re a child. It’s a world.
In that world there were thousands of smaller worlds, like little pocket dimensions. These beautiful things called ‘arcade cabinets’. Even the name had a sort of supreme, otherworldly essence to it.
They weren’t machines, or boxes with mechanical parts in them. They were glowing idols, radiating brilliant illuminations. An arcade cabinet was alive. They were our equal.
Sitting down on the throne, grasping the instruments, fiddling with the stick and listening for that little clicking noise. It was magic, it was movement, a portal to a dimension that I could control, that I would enter once I pressed that button to start the game.
But the one sensation that still lives with me is the rattle of a coin as it tumbles down the gullet of the open slot, and the guttural grinding of it being processed inside. And the screen as it would transform, beginning the two minutes that melded into eternity.
All my coins would be swallowed. The few precious yen I had saved to venture into the great beyond. After that, I would lean on the cabinets and glare at the trial images in awe, my cheeks dewy with sweat. The swirling numbers, the iridescent colours and the raging sounds. All signposted by one phrase, the phrase that was always stamped there, bold and flashing.
0 credits. Insert coin.
Ten years later, I’d come to the same arcade, in the central mall in Nagoya, navigating the errant tides of people through a shoal of tapping feet. The path that should have been littered with auburn leaves had been all but scrubbed clean. I pushed the door open and wandered into the building, passing by the machines. I was assaulted by chanting, ringing and droning from all angles, singers trapped in their metal shells warbled out to me, vying for my attention from under the screeching electric guitars.
I shuffled along the aisles like a monochromatic wisp through the kaleidoscopic barrage, already self-conscious that someone would see me in my white shirt and office skirt. And someone did.
“Hi, Niijima”, I replied with a vague hand motion.
“Oh, sorry, ‘Miss Kaneko Yazawa, head of marketing’, is that what you go by now?”, Niijima asked, still splurging jokes like they were his personal currency.
“Kaneko’s fine”, I breathed with a hint of nostalgia, “Besides, I’m far from the head…”
A smirk erupted from his lips. “So, how are things at the company?”
“Well, you know… it’s work.”
“I can see that. Not that I would know personally.”
“What do you mean?”
“Still nothing for me.”
“There has to be something. If you don’t get a job soon, you’ll be homeless.” My expression warped into something that wouldn’t look out of place on my mother.
“It’s fine, I did some busking to get the funds to come here.”
“I thought you said you were in the area.”
“I am, aren’t I?”
“People usually say that when it’s by coincidence.”
“C’est la vie.”
“That’s not even how you use-… anyway.”
I tried not to acknowledge where he’d decided to meet, but before long, he tottered back and spread his arms wide, displaying it.
“Ta-da! It’d be a crime to meet anywhere else. I just wish I still had a bottle of soda nestled in my schoolbag to complete the moment. You got any snacks?”
“All I have is this.”
I pulled an octopus-flavoured corn stick from my pocket.
“Uwa… really? I thought you hated octopus-flavoured stuff. Or was it squid.”
“It’s the only savoury option in the office vending machine. I had to get used to it.”
“Gross… but anyway. Take a look. Like meeting with an old friend, right?”
I pressed my fingers into the worn plastic, letting out a sigh that mingled with the breath of decades thronging in the air.
It was Jubeat. An arcade rhythm game. The game that had swallowed more of my coins than any other. Beneath my palms was a panel arranged with sixteen square buttons in a 4 x 4 grid. Above me was the odd, blue cube of the cabinet’s main screen, which glared down at me with scorn. It blasted the song selection onto my face, and I cycled my way through it.
“Do ‘Evans’ on Extreme”, Niijima interjected as he snuck closer toward me.
“Evans? Are you kidding?”
“Come on, I know you can do it.”
“I coulddo it.”
“Yeah. What’s changed?”
The sixteen buttons all sparkled up at me. Their outer shell was weary and discolored, the light had faded. I imagined how many had toiled away, tapping them furiously in time with the beat. But the grooves on the console were the same. I wanted to say that it was me who had changed.
The machine delightfully gorged on my coin, indifferent to my presence. There had been thousands like me standing in this position. Thousands of coins.
Evans by DJ Yoshitakaflashed up on the display above the buttons.
The start of the song was easy, it lured you in. It gave you time.
With the first few taps I familiarised myself with the layout again.
I snapped back and forth as intuition and logic fought in my mind.
Four fingers. Top, bottom, top, bottom.
Irises swirling across the display, I pressed whatever I could see, the time markers being my only guide.
One two three four.
I was holding on to my combo by a fraction once the break arrived after the song’s opening. I took a breath and squeezed myself into that 4 x 4 space to let it become my world.
And the song jumped back in.
My fingers leapt across the buttons. Each motion flowed into another, carried by the melody, the clacking sound filtering between each note of the song as if it belonged there. Ah… that was it. The clacking. No matter how many times I heard this song, when I listened to it at home or on the way to school, I couldn’t forget it. The ghostly remnant of the clacking that my brain added on top, like the song wasn’t complete without it.
Drowning under the graphics, the combo number ticked higher and higher, striking a deep, sickening desire to hold on into my stomach. I sprinted alongside the music digits running time diluting hair tossing into my eyelashes all background noise melding away into the air becoming one with the dull fiery haze that lit my retina.
All that remained on the screen, segmented, was the number ‘996’.
A smooth, excitable female voice arose:
Two minutes and ten seconds had passed. With my head swimming in a thick milk of smog, my eyes were still fixed on the screen, and the strained, heavy breaths being ejected from my lungs reverberated through my cheek bones, filling ears. My heartbeat echoed through my chest and beads of humid sweat had collected under my glasses, leaving patchy smears in my vision.
But none of it felt uncomfortable. Another, stronger feeling was welling up inside. Something I hadn’t felt since long before I’d worn a stiff, white shirt and the black skirt that bound my legs, or worn my hair in a loose bun at the back. It was raw adrenaline. A luminous gleam.
I adjusted my glasses with quivering fingers. Niijima, who reappeared beside me, pulled me back into reality.
“Damn. Not bad for a first try. Still, amazing to watch.”
I blinked and took another look at the combo counter. It read 450. Only 450. Even the voice the machine had spoken at the end, had I… imagined that?
The scoreboard appeared. One name still rested atop all the others, with a score of 982893. A rating of S+. The only person to ever achieve a full combo of 996. Coin Girl.
“Mind if I have a go?”, Niijima said, ignoring the results as if he had seen them only yesterday.
I nodded and stepped down.
A faint trickle of notes in the background marked the next song. It reminded me.
Playing a rhythm game lacks the grace of playing an instrument. The movements are awkward and agile, as if challenging your own reactions. It wasn’t admirable, and it wasn’t valuable. The final tingling vestiges remaining in my hands gave way to the familiar brush of polyester as I laid them on my skirt.
After he finished his turn on Jubeat, Niijima and I sat down for a drink nearby.
“Honestly, based on how you were playing, I thought for sure I’d see a score as high as in your Coin Girl days.” he stated, breaking into conversation as he took a light sip from his brimming glass of lemonade.
“That’s… just how things go, I guess. I’m out of practice. I haven’t played for years.” My coffee sat on the table, untouched, the steam billowing away from the top.
“Uh… I don’t know, like, eight?”
“You’ve really not been back here for that long? Even though you still live and work in Nagoya?”
“Well… I just don’t have the time.”
“We both know that’s a lie. I remember what you said in high school: “I-”
“’I bet I could do it’. Yeah, I remember. I said that in high school. We said a lot of things in high school.”
“You never said anything about working for a company.”
“I did it because I had to. I had to live. Do you honestly think I could make a living off being a professional rhythm game player?”
“And whose words are you borrowing this time?”
I lifted the mug and took a sip to distract myself, but even the scolding heat of the coffee couldn’t hide the fact that Niijima’s words had stabbed my tongue. The coffee became invisible blood, pooling in my jaw, and the sting lingered in the roof of my mouth. Anything that escaped my lips after that was an attempt to ignore that pain.
“T-They’re just numbers. We didn’t know what they meant. What even is 982893, anyway? What’s an S+?”
“That looked like a lot more than numbers to me.”
Despite arriving home that night, my moonlit eyelids finally being lulled close by the passing of cars in the night, something didn’t leave me behind. Even after waking up and making it to work before 9 am, welcomed by a desk stacked with paper and a clean computer desktop, it was still there.
A burning that lingered on my tongue.
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