Service Station Slot Machines

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Yesterday afternoon I found myself in a nondescript motorway service station on the M1 somewhere between Nottingham and Chesterfield, waiting for Ed to buy a cup of coffee before we continued north for a much longed for day out in the Peak District to celebrate our tenth wedding anniversary. Physical distancing rules meant that I couldn’t join him in the queue – it was restricted to one adult per household – so I stood by the exit instead, watching people come and go.

Motorway service stations in England – with the exception of Gloucester Services – are uniformly dank, dismal, depressing spaces at the best of times, and during this global pandemic have become increasingly dystopian. As Ed waited in the queue, a teenage employee in an oversized high-vis jacket who in happier times I imagine would have been at Leeds Festival celebrating her GCSE results with friends, stood by the entrance and exit with a box of disposable face masks, holding the doors for travellers as they came and went. The ambient anxiety was palpable, and I watched as people compulsively sanitised their hands every few meters each time they passed one of the many hand sanitising stations that had been set up around the building. Mask wearing though, as ever, remained lax. Mouths covered, but not noses, and physical distancing had gone out of the window as people inched towards the queue for the toilets.

In amongst the comings and goings, my attention was drawn by flashing lights over in the slot machines booth; a dark, roped off gambling cave present at every motorway service station, but usually devoid of activity. A man in his late forties or early fifties stood at one of the machines, left hand clutching a stack of pristine bank notes fresh from an ATM, right hand gently nudging the dial as he played round after round of Lady of Avalon. His expression concealed behind his mask, I watched for about ten minutes as he slid note after note into the machine, increasing his stakes in the game, oblivious to the world around him.

Eventually Ed came out of the shop with a cup of coffee in hand, and we merged back into the slipstream of lorries on the northbound carriageway, passing glossy, cheerful signs promising a bright new future for post-Brexit Britain. As the windscreen wipers cleared the drizzle and wind pulled our car from side to side, I turned Jimmy Eat World’s ‘Bleed American’ up loud and we sang along to our favourite songs, stubbornly sticking to our plan for an anniversary picnic and hike in the High Peak despite Storm Ellen, no-deal Brexit, and the second spike of COVID-19 blowing in across our miserable little North Atlantic islands.

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