If you were given the job of rebranding Hell to make it more family-oriented, you couldn’t do better than a bowling complex. A neon sign over the door: Hell’s Bowls, with a series of elongated, screaming faces being knocked over by a skull. Steeeeee-rrrrrrriiiiiikkkke!
The thing was – Jess had just turned thirteen, and she wanted to take some friends bowling. We booked a lane online, and got there fifteen minutes early for check-in, as the ticket printout suggested.
Hell’s Bowls turns out to be a hangar divided into areas, each area contributing about 100db of its own particular horror to the overall soundscape. Immediately to the left are the arcade games, straight ahead is the area for booking in and hiring shoes, to the right is a western bar with pool tables and sports playing on gigantic screens, further to the left is a Fifties’ diner, and then, occupying half of the space, the bowling area itself, a series of UV lit lanes, thirty or forty in a row, crashing neon pins one end, screaming crowds of people the other.
As we stand waiting to check-in, and my eyes and ears adjust to the discordant clamour around us, I begin to pick out amongst the crowds a particular variety of customer – like me, I suppose, standing utterly still, arms by their sides, gaunt expressions, as if some spidery machine has unexpectedly snuck down onto the top of their heads from the dark heights of the complex, unscrewed the tops of their skulls, slooped out their brains and hurried away with their prize.
After a while we make the front of the queue.
A woman dressed in pink stripes like a giant candy but with the hollow-eyed demeanour of a gaoler working a back-to-back, thumps the computer with her fingers. After a while, she grunts an acknowledgement of something, and hands us an electronic tag with a star in the middle.
‘What’s this?’ says Kath.
‘When it beeps, your lane’s ready,’ her voice as flat as if what she’d really meant to say was: When it beeps, you’ll be taken out and shot.
The western bar is closest. We decide to wait there.
Which we do.
For twenty minutes past our due time.
Maybe the tag’s faulty?
We go back to the counter. Queue again. When we reach the front, the woman doesn’t seem surprised to see us. ‘It’s busy’ she says, glancing over our shoulder, like maybe we hadn’t noticed. ‘The lanes are running late. It won’t be much longer.’
She turns her attention to the computer again, punches some more keys, then sighs and looks at us again.
‘They’re on the last ball’ she says.
We go back to the western bar and wait some more.
When the tag still doesn’t beep, we’re forced back to ask what’s going on.
‘It’s ready for you now,’ the woman says, without the slightest indication she’s recognised us or thought much about the thing at all.
‘Lane Number One,’ she says.
The girls are happy to start bowling, but the lane table and chairs are in a real mess, junked-up with half finished drinks, plates of food, crisp packets and stuff. Whilst the girls get on with the game, I go back to speak to the woman.
‘I’ll send a lane attendant over,’ she says.
But like the tag that didn’t beep, the lane attendant doesn’t come.
Eventually I’m forced to go back to the desk. I can’t bear the thought of queuing again – but maybe I don’t need to. There’s a lane attendant standing in front of the counter, looking out over the lanes with a bruised kind of detachment, like the sole survivor of the apocalypse. She strikes me as the kind of person who might be able to help.
‘Hi’ I say, waving at the same time, for some reason.
She frowns and leans away from me.
‘The woman on the desk said she was sending a lane attendant over,’ I shout. ‘But no-one’s come.’
‘Why d’you need a lane attendant?’ she shouts back.
‘The lane needs clearing.’
She stares at me.
‘It’s busy’ she says. ‘‘We’re short-staffed.’
‘Yeah, I bet. But the thing is – we booked online, we were late going on, the lane’s full of junk, and we were expecting our drinks order to be there. And they’re not. To be honest – and I know it’s not your fault – but we’re not very happy.’
‘You have to ask for drinks vouchers when you sign-in.’
‘Why aren’t they just given to us?’
‘That’s not how it works. The computer’s just the booking. That’s it.’
‘I don’t understand. I mean – it must tell you how many are in the party.’
‘So if you can see that on the computer, why doesn’t it say you’re due some drinks?’
‘Because it doesn’t work like that. You have to ask for vouchers.’
‘Look – Is there a manager I can talk to about all this?’
‘Yeah. It’s my daughter’s party, and to be honest, I’m not happy with the way any of this has gone.’
She sighs, presses a button on her handset and then puts one hand over her earpiece so she can hear.
Yeah. It’s Janine. Can you come over to front desk please?…. there’s a customer wants to speak to you…. (she glances at me like she’s tempted to add a few other things to the description)….I don’t know., he’s unhappy or something….. yeah, but he says he wants to speak to a manager… and that’s you, yeah? Okay then.
She twists off the handset.
‘She’ll see you in the lane,’ she says.
Walking back to the others, I try to temper my frustration by imagining how difficult it must be to work in a place like this. The noise, the crowds, the flashing lights. It’s like being miniaturised and injected into a migraine.
The AI revolution can’t come quick enough – bomb disposal, sewage maintenance, bowling. It’s simple humanity.
Eventually the manager appears. She comes striding over, pre-armed with a smile and some compensation – a handful of free passes for more bowling (which is like offering a free road traffic accident after you’ve just been knocked over). But we’re grateful. We take the tickets, and thank her for talking to us. A lane attendant cleans the decks, hurries away, comes back with drinks. It all begins to settle into something more bearable.
The girls want some time alone, so Kath and I decide to go to the Fifties diner to get some coffee.
There’s a long queue. Only two people serving – a flushed, distracted looking woman with crazy, curly hair who’s singing to herself and jigging from side to side as she operates the slushy machine, and a man with one arm in a cast. The man is trying to scoop vanilla ice cream into the milkshake machine. It’s appalling – but also instructive – to watch how he braces the tub with the crook of the cast and uses his body weight to counterbalance the whole operation. Of course, it’s fantastically slow. The people in front of us glance around, suspicious this is some kind of elaborate prank – then sigh a great deal, and check their phones, and look around some more. After ten minutes of nothing happening, we give up, head back to the western bar and get some cokes.
Later on, with the girls on the last leg of their second game, I glance over at the diner to see if the queue has improved. It seems okay, so we both head back to get a coffee before we go.
Crazy Hair is comforting Cast Man, who’s rubbing his eye with his good hand.
‘What happened?’ says Kath.
‘He squirted himself in the eye with sanitizer,’ she says.
Suddenly, an angry man steps round us and goes up to the counter with a plate of fries in either hand. At first I think he’s going to throw them, but instead he tips the plates upside down – demonstrating what he thinks of their quality by the fact that they stay in the bowls. Then he puts the plates on the counter, turns round, and strides away.
Cast Man watches all this with his sanitized eye swollen shut and his mouth open. Crazy Hair takes the bowls, quietly puts them under the counter, and turns to smile at us.
‘Now then! What can I get you?’ she says.